I gave a talk at the recent Etel conference, and I have subsequently decided to post the preso under a new name. The O’Reilly organizers had offered up “Communications Overload” way back when, and a few weeks ago — before putting my thoughts and slides together — I had asked them to change the name to “Communications Underload: A Contrarian Approach” which they did.
After the thoughts I struggled with in the few past days, and the experience of actually presenting the talk (it was not so much a workshop as a ridiculously long talk), I am going to rename the materials as “Overload, Shmoverload”.
I wish I has an audio of the preso. I think I will do that in the future. Here’s a SlideShare of the preso:presentations from Stowe Boyd.
What did I talk about? A few points:
- We don’t really know what attention is, despite all the mumbo-jumbo spouted by Nobel laureates (Herbert Simon - “What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”), best-selling business book authors (Tom Davenport and John Beck - “The scarcest resource for today’s business leaders is no longer just land, capital, or human labor, and it certainly isn’t information. Attention is what’s in short supply.”), or high tech self-help gurus (Linda Stone - continuous partial attention). It may involve several related cognitive centers, but at any rate, modern psychology/cognitive science hasn’t figured it out.
- My guess: most of what people say about attention is hogwash: mere anecdotes, or flimsy cultural norms offered up in a ‘be productive, be happy’ wrapper.
- Whenever business thinkers seek to apply an economic metaphor to human cognition, it is a mess: remember “knowledge management”?
- Attention — whatever it really is — is not an economic factor, like the price of gas. It is not a resource: it is not fungible. It can’t be bought, sold, or created.
- Are we being driven crazy by Toffler’s Information Overload? Is the ADD epidemic a result of information cracking our kids?
- We are transitioning to a new ethos, in which remaining connected to those most important to us is more imporant (and more valuable, in the final analysis) than personal productivity. This seems counterintuitive, since people talk about time stress the way that people in the agricultural era talked about backache. But the productivity of the network — those that matter to you — is more important than the piecework in your lap.
- We have to spand more time scanning the horizon — keeping up with all your friends’ status updates on Twitter, reviewing the newest posts on techmeme, etc. — than people used to, because the rate of change has increased. The hypothetical value of focusing on one thing and getting it done as quickly as possible has decreased.
- We are switching to a time in which the dominant mode will be flow, not focus.
- How do jugglers juggle? They don’t focus on the balls, the movements, or timing. They unfocus: it is a field of all three dimensions and their attention is distributed. Good jugglers can also sing or tell jokes while juggling. Unfocus.
- In an era of flow you can ignore things that don’t look threatening or critical. Important stuff will be signalled in a bunch of ways: critical breaking news stories will show in Twitter tweets, RSS, emails, IM. But you can just ignore transient stuff. That’s why etiquette around IM has to be based on ‘it’s ok to ignore IMs’ because otherwise it becomes a chore demanding foreground attention.
- Don’t listen to industrial era or information era (the last stage of industrial-ism) nonsense about personal productivity. Don’t listen to the Man.
- The network is mostly connections. The connections matter, give it value, not the nodes.
- Flow Strategies: (yes, I offered some cheap advice)
- Time is a shared space — your time is truly not your own
- Productivity is second to Connection: network productivity trumps personal productivity
- Everything important will find its way to you many, many times: don’t worry if you miss it
- Remain in the flow: be wrapped up in the thing that has captured your attention
- The way we think of time colors everything:
- Physics time: part of the fabric of the universe — this is how physicists make sense of things, but not relevant for us, really.
- Linear (Industrial) time: Kant/Leibnitz shaped the western notion of time as something we are passing through — this is a recent invention, and underlies undustrial era notions of progress.
- Cyclical (Mystical) time: time as the unending moment — limited to transcendent moments for most of us who are not yet enlightened.
- Flow (Lived) time: we are in the unending moment through which everything flows — Piaget and others have noted that time dliates: sometimes it goes slow, sometimes it zooms. When you are in the zone, the tennis (base, soccer, basket) ball seems to slow down and there is plenty of time to get into the right position, without consciously thinking of it.
- The New Balancing Act: “For the average person, linked in a dense, cascading social network of collaborators who depend on your timely response to critical events, it will prove increasingly difficult — if not impossible — to veer away from continuous partial attention. We will have to learn a new balancing act, and it will be strongly canted toward spending more cycles scanning the horizon and fewer looking down at the piecework in our laps”
Looks like a book struggling to be written. Down, boy.