Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Attention deficit

I've been worried about informational overload and generally feeling distracted lately, as might be obvious from the divergent topics of this blog (which is of course a highly filtered version of even more numerous topics flitting around my brain like meth-addicted butterflies). Not a new problem, and I was amused to learn that Herb Simon anticipated it in 1971:
"What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.''
-- Herbert Simon
Let me change the problem a little bit. Forget "attention", which is fleeting at best. I can give my short-term attention to CNN or a blog but whether or not I absorb any long-term knowledge or value from the act of attending is a different matter. Let's think about knowledge, whatever that is.

There are two kinds of knowledge: the stuff in my head, and the stuff outside. The latter category is growing at an absurd pace, while the stuff inside is growing at a snail's pace (or possibly shrinking). There is an impedance mismatch between these two worlds; transferring stuff in or out of the head is laborious and there is no technological fix in sight.

The network and the web browser and the search engine gives you "access" to all the world's knowledge, but that's not the same thing as knowing everything. What would that even mean? Too much knowledge is bad for you -- some of Borges' stories address this: The Aleph and Funes the Memorious, and of course The Library of Babel are all about the dangers of having too much information too close to hand. Unless you have an exceptional mind, you always have to trade off depth and breadth of knowledge. Knowing everything means knowing nothing very well.

Managing attention is only part of the general area of managing the relationship between what you know and what you know how to find out. The trick of the googlectual of the future is to have the skills for gathering just-in-time knowledge in a flexible yet rigorous way, and applying it when needed, and then, presumably, forgetting it but keeping a pointer to where to find it again.


goatchowder said...

Rush's "Digital Man" came out when I was in college, and its lyrics seemed to sum up the future pretty well: "he picks up scraps of information, radio and radiation, his reliance on the giants in the science of the day".

The old (possibly aprocryphal) story I heard is that Einstein didn't know his own phone number. He said he could look it up if he needed; no need to waste time learning it.

I think this is simply the natural state of a complex society. Cooperation amongst an aggregates of narrow specialists that all don't have a clue about each other. No one person can know everything; in fact very few can know *anything*. Kind of like an entire society doing "extreme programming" in Java. Or Open Source.

We have entered the Age of the Million Monkeys.

Bill Tozier said...

What I think is different is the social infrastructure in which our knowledge is acquired and used, and not the quality or quantity of the knowledge itself. Indeed, I wonder if maybe we pay attention to too little, not too much.

[I see I have to update those blasted links, or those entries will be lost forever. Irony abounds.]

mtraven said...

Thanks for the pointer to those interesting posts. "Psychic apoptosis" has to be the best new phrase I've heard for awhile, I'll certainly think of it as I feel my neurons decay.

BTW, The Rosicrucians haven't vanished; they run a city block in San Jose which includes a variety of mock-Egyptian temples and sculpture, a museum and planetarium. Well worth a vist, although it is disappointingly free of overtly weird culty stuff -- you have to dig deep to find it.