Cutting through the info avalanche

15 Jan 2009

The problem with the attention economy is that no-one pays much attention. At least not for long.

A quick Google search suggests that "information overload" was much discussed in the 1980s and 1990s. But in the last few years it seems the world has, well, lost interest.

Pundit Nicholas Carr, who once queried the value of IT, has cast a stone into this stagnant pond with an article asking, "Is Google making us stupid‾".

Just as media guru Marshall McLuhan argued that watching TV had an impact on human behavior, Carr suggests that a decade of internet browsing and surfing has altered his neurons.

The net seems to be "chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski."

Carr admits he could be just a cranky intransigent, like Plato fretting over the spread of writing or a 15th century philosopher in fear of Gutenberg. But some hard evidence is to hand.

A five-year study of the habits of young library users finds that yes, they tend to demand instant gratification as they "scan, flick and "Ëœpower browse' their way through digital content."

Not just students. "Everyone exhibits a bouncing/flicking behavior, which sees them searching horizontally rather than vertically."

A US consultancy, Basex, thinks it's a big problem for the modern corporation, based as it is around a battalion of knowledge workers. It quotes a University of London study in which participants who had smoked marijuana performed better in an IQ test than those beset by ringing phones and other interruptions (but, it must be said, not as well as those free of both pot and interruptions).

It's easy enough to regard the information avalanche as an unavoidable curse of modern life, like airport security checks.

But it's also something CIOs should care about. Companies like Morgan Stanley and Intel have explicitly identified overload as a drag on productivity.

But there's no simple fix, which means some of the CIO's own precious attention is essential here.

Technology can help, like with the smart use of email filters, or products that can closely track projects. Policy matters, too - for data retention, and defining what apps and content users can access.

But the biggest gap is in user education. PC users need to learn when they should and shouldn't email, to minimize the number of recipients, and when they are better off instead using IM or the phone. Some good soft IT skills, such as how to find things online, how to manage their data, and how to evaluate data accuracy, wouldn't go astray either.

Those are not the areas of traditional IT preoccupation. But if the IT group can't master those skills, and pass them on, who will‾

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