Mark Ronson – who, to parody Private Eye’s impression of High Court Judges, we might describe to the unfamiliar as a producer of popular music discs – isn’t the first man I’d turn to for insights into the impact of communications media on modern life. (No offence meant, Mr Ronson: if we’re maligning you too unfairly, perhaps a PR angle adjustment is due?) But his tweet of 30 March 2011 hit one modern nail very firmly on the head:
the problem with answering emails is that, then you’re almost always guaranteed to receive another one”
(If you’re susceptible to the idea of now playing text or tweet tennis with him, I hope you saw his more recent offering – “I read most my texts/tweets aloud in a Vincent Price voice. Don’t write me things like “ahahahahahahaha”, it comes off creepy and sinister”: any suggestions for messages to tweet to him appreciated. Perhaps we could match-make an online bromance with http://twitter.com/dalailama?)
My point – and I think Ronson’s also – is that sending emails or texts is now so easy it’s as difficult to resist temptation as it is to give in: that is, not very difficult at all. We may tell ourselves we live in The Information Age, but surely an economist would disagree: commodities gain value through either scarcity (which plainly doesn’t apply) or utility (which must be highly debatable).
This outcome is a classic case of “should have seen it coming”, of course, and a few people undoubtedly did a few years ago. Here’s Neil Postman, writing in his 1992 book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology -
One way of defining Technopoly, then, is to say it is what happens to society when the defenses against information glut have broken down. It is what happens when institutional life becomes inadequate to cope with too much information. It is what happens when a culture, overcome by information generated by technology, tries to employ technology itself as a means of providing clear direction and humane purpose. The effort is mostly doomed to failure. Though it is sometimes possible to use a disease as a cure for itself, this occurs only when we are fully aware of the processes by which disease is normally held in check.”
We live in an era where the phrase “too much information” is heard every day, but usually in response to a workplace colleague sharing details of their life that we think are too intimate or graphic. Although a fair percentage of these incidences happen by email, MSN or Twitter, the irony of that digitised “TMI” – 3 key strokes, 4 including ‘Send’, so you can reply (almost) without thinking – is bypassing us. The real problem of TMI isn’t (mostly feigned) moral trauma: it’s closer to Douglas Coupland’s paraphrasing of Marshall McLuhan in his delightful biography “You Know Nothing of My Work!”:
The world is understandable: too much information makes it feel like it isn’t.”
The more general use of “TMI” notwithstanding, we do seem to fallen into a trap of over-hastily embracing the ease of technology rather than pondering the potential side- effects in a situation we could sum up as “8 bits good, naughty bits bad” (alternatively, we could read Sherry Turkle’s rather more erudite and laudable Alone Together, reviewed here recently).
Nicholas Carr caused a kerfuffle with his recent book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, but a recent posting at the Rough Type blog takes Clay Shirkey to task for his recent comments on how improved technological filters will help us fight information overload (you may wish to re-read the Neil Postman quote above before continuing):
There was one thing that bugged me, though, about Shirky’s idea, and it was this paradox: The quality and speed of our information filters have been improving steadily for a few centuries, and have been improving extraordinarily quickly for the last two decades, and yet our sense of being overloaded with information is stronger than ever. If, as Shirky argues, improved filters will reduce overload, then why haven’t they done so up until now? Why don’t we feel that information overload is subsiding as a problem rather than getting worse? The reason, I’ve come to believe, is that Shirky’s formulation gets it precisely backwards. Better filters don’t mitigate information overload; they intensify it. It would be more accurate to say: “It’s not information overload. It’s filter success.”
These were comments picked up on by Oliver Burkeman in a recent Guardian Weekend Magazine article (Spam filter working? So why do you still feel deluged?), who pointed out that a Twitter feed tailored to recognise your preferences and interests is a more effective distraction that a random heap of information of varying degrees of attractiveness – a point Carr neatly summarised in the words:
Ambient overload doesn’t involve needles in haystacks. It involves haystack-sized piles of needles.”
I can’t propose an answer to the size of the Web: well, actually you could turn your PC off more regularly, or just restrain yourself – but those last three words ring with the tone of an Edwardian schoolmaster who is struggling to himself that the battle will soon be lost if it hasn’t already been surrendered. The web is testimony to one of my pet arguments: minimalism is unnatural for the overwhelming majority of people.
But email and texts and MSNs are slightly different: the problem here is that the majority of people are becoming overwhelming as well as overwhelmed. A friend recently provided me with an interesting real-life scenario. Her housing association employs a general maintenance man, who we’ll call (for convenience) Fred. He has 50 or so houses and flats to keep in good order, attending to leaks, heating problems, guttering and so on. He copes with the responsibility admirable, and his work is well thought of, but he’s a one man operation.
For many years, Fred just had an answerphone. If you had a problem, you phoned him and either explained your problem or left a message with the details. If Fred is already up a ladder or down a drain, it’s reasonable to acknowledge that taking your call, diarising agreed actions and so on might need to wait a little while. And if an unmanageable crisis erupted, outside contracts could be brought in to solve a temporary workload issue.
Although this all worked well for Fred and for the tenants, “someone, somewhere” decided it was a bit, you know, last century. Fred should have email, an online diary and booking system, and SMS alerts to a mobile. What if Doris or Natasha had a drippy tap for more than 5 minutes? Shouldn’t it be fixed now? (You might want to refer to our review of Michael Foley’s The Age of Absurdity here, by the way.)
Fred now comes 45 minutes early so he can respond to at least some of the emails (neither IT nor typing are among his core skills) and rearrange bookings that tenants have booked into his diary without his confirmation; quite often, he works an extra 45 minutes at the end of the day too, although less often when all his bookings over-run all day because he has to stop to answer or return calls in mid-task. And the tenants are slightly less happy: it seems to take longer to get some things fixed, and Fred’s not the cheerful, helpful presence he was. He’s still polite and conscientious, but the smile doesn’t seem to come so readily.
Is it just me, or is the problem here is that it has become too easy for the tenants? Day or night, just fire off a message. And maybe a follow-up (or two) if there’s no instant reply. Contacting the maintenance man has become so easy that the maintenance itself is beginning to take second place to the communication. The tenants – and Fred – should be revelling in an enlightened, modern task-management process instead of which they are all becoming more frustrated. And relationships are suffering as much as drainpipes and u-bends. Making life easier is all fair and well, but if we make the wrong things too easy we get the wrong results – or at least not the result we had in mind.
(Two further thoughts on mobile phones for you. Firstly, Antimicrobial case retailer, Proporta, asserts that the average mobile phone has 25,127 germs per square inch. And secondly, mobile phones harbour 18 times more bacteria than a flush handle in a typical men’s restroom. More facts at The Sacramento Bee, in the appropriately titled article, Talk about going viral.)
It’s called Jevons Paradox: the more efficient and easy we make something, the more we do it. It was originally applied to coal use (in Jevons’ 1865 book The Coal Question which observed that “It is a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth.”), but it can be applied more widely. Adding lanes to motorways increases congestion rather than reducing it: getting there by motorway becomes so ‘easy’ for everyone that we all do it. And then it’s harder for everyone.
The answer may, Edwardian schoolmasters notwithstanding, be self-discipline. Julian Baggini wrote an article in yesterday’s Independent, A hard shoulder to cry on, that came to much the same conclusion:
If the paradox of convenience is to have a solution, it cannot be found by simply denying the real gains progress brings. The answer, rather, is learning to use them more wisely. A road does not have to be driven along just because it is there. Phones can be switched off as well as on. Food can be stored in your cupboards as well as on store shelves down the road.
When the M1 reopens, it is obvious why cars will fill its lanes once again. But it is not obvious why they should do so to bursting point. In order for car travel to become truly liberating again […] we need to remind ourselves that an inconvenience is often no more than a convenience we have over-used.”
There is a more radical challenge, however: using business process re-engineering to make some things just that little bad harder to do. We can’t predict where life – or work – will lead us, but an over-used convenience sounds like a destination to avoid.