Silicon Valley Fights Back Against the (Information) Monster It Created

Turn the monitor off and back away slowly from the computer.  The chances are good that what you were about to do would contribute to the growing problem of information overload.

Last week, at a panel discussion hosted by the Churchill Club entitled “Silicon Valley Fights Back Against the (Information) Monster It Created,” everyone from students to VCs to developers creating solutions to combat the scourge came together to learn more about a common enemy: information overload.

Based on the turnout and the comments and questions from the audience, it is clear that we have a problem.  Even the contrarian on the panel, John Poisson of Tiny Pictures, who tried to build a case for an increase in interruptions (something his company’s software does very well), admitted that, when he was in Vermont and his two mobile devices were out of range, he suffered withdrawal symptoms.

I’ve said this before and I’ll repeat it here: we have created a generation of workers that require instant gratification in whatever they are doing.  (For the record, I assign blame directly to Fedex, a company that redefined instant gratification in the context of overnight delivery starting in 1973).  We send e-mails and then call someone two minutes later to ascertain whether the message was received; we mindlessly stream out “important” content to hundreds of people who have their own urgent and important matters to attend to.

But Fedex should not shoulder that blame alone; we have created a monster in the very tools, such as mobile phones, PDAs, e-mail, text messaging, and social networking, that were to make us more efficient and effective.

Some people make the case that younger users, those in Generation Y, are more adept at multitasking and information overload is, as a result, more natural.  Let me repeat what I said on the panel and many times before: there is no such thing as multitasking.  We switch between tasks but human beings are simply not capable of or wired for multitasking.

Indeed, this is why the cost of interruptions is so high; the most surprising finding from our research (see the Basex report The Cost of Not Paying Attention ) is that it isn’t the cost of the actual interruption but rather the cost of the recovery time, which can be ten to 20 times that of the interruption itself, that adds up – if indeed one gets back to where one was at all.  Our findings were consistent across all age groups – there was no exemption for Gen Y.

Following the Churchill Club event, one of the most insightful comments came from Patrick Riley, a PhD candidate at the School of Information, U.C. Berkeley.  He wrote the following explanation: “my generation needs constant reinforcement from our friends and colleagues about how awesome we are and how we are doing such a great job at whatever it is we are doing.”  Perhaps I need to add Mr. Rogers, who told an entire generation of children that they were “special,” to the rogues’ gallery along with Fedex.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

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