What Was I Working on Again? – Part II

The July 15 Information Overload conference was chock full of information, perhaps to the point of where we had no time to think.

Not surprisingly, that was the title of David Levy’s presentation at the event.  Levy presented a fascinating paradox, namely that, just as we are creating new tools for knowledge work and collaboration (and as our economy is becoming more knowledge based), we are losing the time we need to think.

Levy referenced Nobel Prize-winning geneticist Barbara McClintock who, in her studies of corn plants, was able to take enough time to look and hear what the material (her corn plants, specifically) was able to say to her.  Indeed she exhorted people to be contemplative, to “take the time and look,” but in many cases this was met with puzzlement.  Technology has continuously accelerated the pace of research and that appeared to be incompatible with her more contemplative view.

Levy made a solid case for setting aside time for contemplation although he pointed out an interesting paradox: the inspiration for today’s knowledge sharing and collaborative tools comes from Vannevar Bush’s memex, a portmanteau of “memory extender,” which he wrote about in his landmark article “As We May Think” in the July 1945 issue of The Atlantic Monthly.  Bush envisaged tools that automate the more mundane and routine aspects of knowledge work, freeing up the knowledge worker to have more time to think.  Unfortunately the introduction of more technology did not achieve this goal.

Levy also looked into our leisure time as examined by Roman Catholic theologian and philosopher Josef Pieper.  For the ancient Greeks, leisure was not merely free time but a goal of the highest order.  Pieper, writing in post-Second World War Germany, saw a nation in danger of being all-consumed by work.  Germany was in danger of losing its leisure time, as defined by the Greeks.  The accelerating pace of work can best be described in a decline of the work-life balance and the attempt to multi-task at sporting events and other leisure time activities.

Levy’s solution is to reintroduce more contemplative practices into both work and academic settings.  While it will be hard to undo the damage caused by multitasking and information overload, finding more time to think, via contemplation and meditative practices, will hopefully offset the damage that these problems occasion.

Next week we’ll wrap things up.

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

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