Friday, February 18, 2011

Information Overload! High Volume, Low Quality

I've always felt I was born at a particularly interesting time to comment on the Information Revolution, because the core changes happened just as I was growing up. I'm about the youngest you'll get that remembers life before all these changes and about the oldest you'll get that will spend their whole adult life trying to figure out how to function with them.

Maybe that's just me thinking I'm special because I'm part of "Generation Me" or the Millennials, or Gen Y or whatever we are this week. I was born in 1983, so that means that I'm near the older end of where people are drawing the line between Generations X and Y. When I think about how learning, playing, and interacting with the world was done when I was growing up (let's say 1995) versus when my late Boomer parents were growing up (say 1970), what was different? I had video games and VHS. I guess by the time I was 12 we had cable TV, but we didn't when I was real young. Computers hadn't trickled down to really affect kids beyond being another way to play video games yet (I saw the internet for the first time in 1994, I remember sending my first email maybe in 1996 and posted in newsgroups by 1997). Beyond that, TV, radio, telephone, long-playing recorded music (LPs and CDs aren't all that different in terms of functionality), encyclopedias, newspapers, magazines, hell going to the library...all pretty much the same between the first ten or so years of my life and my parents.

When it comes to how we communicate and how we consume media, there is a far, far larger gap between me and someone maybe even ten years younger than I am, never mind what 25 years will look like. If you were born in 1993, by the time you were twelve, there was a mature broadband internet with things like a young Facebook and iTunes and the dawn of YouTube, dirt cheap powerful computers, cell phones, mp3 players, etc. And 12-year olds use these things! Sure, there were cell phones in 1995, but no kids had them.  I don't remember anybody in high school sending text messages. YouTube didn't exist until I was basically out of college.

I remember being disconnected and unreachable...having to plan your day in advance (ok, another difference between my parents childhood and mine: answering machines). I remember what it was like to not know the answer to something and to either have to ask somebody or find a book and hope the answer was available, and not just have Wikipedia on an iPhone to go to.

So, for better or for worse - and I'm far, far, far from the first person to comment on this - the world has changed in fundamental ways...and quickly. Too quickly for society to have understood and adjusted to. What does it mean? Over the past few years, there has been a lot of discussion over what all this technology is doing to our brains:  Email makes you dumber than smoking marijuana (2005). Those under 30 are the 'Dumbest Generation.' (2008)  Kids spend every waking minute they are not in school plugged in (2010). Of course, there has been backlash:  One mom recently unplugged her family for six months.

There are certainly benefits to the always-on and on-demand information revolution. For example, I'm writing a blog entry (that people I've never met are going to read) on a wireless-broadband laptop with a multi-hour battery charge from bed and I found all four of the stories I posted in the last paragraph in under five minutes on Google. However, it took me fifteen minutes to get my concentration together to actually start writing because I got distracted by a huge volume of information as soon as I logged in. So, I wonder what is going on with how people think, learn, and participate in society. Now that we do have these amazing and convenient technologies, what did we lose?

I'm not sure we'll know for sure until those ten, fifteen, twenty years younger than me enter the workforce starting in another four years or so. Because, as I said, unlike myself on the generational cusp, these kids will never know any different.

More after the jump.

I did something I hadn't done in a long time yesterday: I read a magazine article. I was stuck at the car dealership and National Geographic had a great article on the world population hitting seven billion. But this isn't about the article. This isn't about how in a saner world, our unnamed suburb I was trapped in would've plowed the sidewalks on its major commercial street so I could walk to a coffee shop. It's about the fact that it is the first feature-length article I've read in a very, very long time. I've read plenty of short, factual articles on the topic. I've read plenty of books on tangential topics, but books tend to have much stronger agendas and be one-sided. This article made me really think, instead of nodding agreeingly as I often do.

This is why we are being called the Dumbest Generation: our constant consumption of media is via social networking, blog posts, and short online news articles - no depth, no concentration, no reflection. Even the 24/7 news cycle of cable news can't hold our attention because we want the good stuff now - only John Stewart's very short and ADD Daily Show can. Even the Paper of Record here in Lowell (which I hold a dead-tree subscription to although I tend to just toss it because I read it online before I even see the print copy at my house), basically never runs a feature-length story these days. The difference with me from many of the Dumbest Generation attacks, and maybe the fact that I'm not all that young plays into this, is that I still read a lot of books.  And paper ones at that, thank you very much.

As someone who was reared on Nintendo Power, Highlights, Boy's Life, Astronomy, and later Rolling Stone, Popular Mechanics, and Newsweek, this was sort of a frightening realization.  I very carefully select what parts of the deluge of media I want to read, and digest it in small chunks. That means, at least in theory, I'm missing out on a whole hell of a lot. That is, even though I consider my breadth of knowledge, being an unapologetic Wikipedian, above average, my depth in crucial areas - like politics - is pretty poor. And it's not exactly that I don't care...it's how we are presented the material today.

I spent last weekend drinking beers and playing board games with some old friends of mine. Of course, the topic went to politics, and I found myself sorely outmatched. They too, are avid book readers, but we read in different - but tangential - areas. It was one of those rare adult opportunities to sit down with a group of people and just talk and make each other think, and it was one of the most enriching experiences I've had in a long time. Human contact! Civilized debate! Sam Adams! I recently got a copy of Bowling Alone, which had been recommended to me many times, which I think talks about this sort of thing. Did I mention I drove 100 miles each way for this conversation? What happened to a neighborhood group of friends?

A few days later, I had a phone conversation with another friend who lives hundreds of miles away about this very topic - our failure to get any depth out of the media. NPR had mentioned a few days before (my girlfriend listens, I prefer WFNX) that the number of foreign correspondents for major US news organizations is frighteningly low and dropping (note the article is from 2007). The context was what just happened in Egypt. What did just happen in Egypt? My friend and I knew that there were protests, the president stepped down, the military took over, and the constitution had been suspended...but we really didn't know why or why we should care. Something about oppression and a potential domino effect. Really kinda sad.

So, while some of us might feel heady because we read a lot of Wikipedia, Google News, SlashDot and other blogs...or because our friends post Facebook updates about graphics on the national budget instead of pictures of them drinking at some seedy bar, how much better are we than those who rapidly digest the latest celebrity news on PerezHilton or feel-good off of CuteOverload? Probably not as much as we'd like to think. We still miss a lot of the meat. You like knowing what Giselle is up to, I'd prefer to understand the history and layout of Westminster Palace. Doesn't mean I know much of anything about Parliament. I defend myself by saying at least with broad knowledge, I know what I don't know. Which, I think, is one of the most powerful tools in successfully navigating our world.

So, in closing, while I feel like I should subscribe to a news magazine or two and work on building a better local network of People Who Care, I'm going to do a shout-out to Greg Page over at http://anewenglanderinlowell.blogspot.com/, who is getting deployed to Afganistan. I had posted this on my Facebook a while back, and he appreciated it. I think with all the preparation he had to do for deployment, he never got a chance to repost it on his own site. It's somewhat topical to my post.

Here is why cell phones are ruining America and how we can stop it:
I know that it has been fewer than 15 years since cell phones started showing up everywhere, but we need to lay out some ground rules.  The base is, that cell phones are a new technology that add a lot of convenience to life, but people survived without them for millennia.  Therefore, you don't owe them anything, and life would continue without them. 
1.   WHEN IT IS OK TO ANSWER A PHONE
If you are having a conversation in person, especially if in public, it is often rude to interrupt it to answer your phone. You are dealing with somebody who is right there who has given you the time out of their day to talk to you. The person on the other end of the phone might be sitting on the toilet. It is ok to excuse yourself and check what the number is. If you have to take the call, excuse yourself. The rules for text messages are the same. Odds are the person on the other end can wait.
1a.  If you make an important call and you don't get an answer, call right back. Ringing twice in a row implies "this is important!" Don't ignore people that keep calling.
1b.  It is never proper to send critical text messages. Most phones have a very short ring for a new text message. You have no idea if and when they noticed it, because there is no confirmation on receipt. Text messages get lost in routing sometimes as well. Phone rings are far more likely to get someone's attention.
2.  WHEN IT IS OK TO LEAVE VOICEMAILS
Don't leave useless voicemails. They know you called from the missed call log, they'll probably call you back. If it's going to take longer for them to log into voicemail than it will to listen to you tell them you need eggs on the way home, you just stole part of somebody's life. Send a text message instead if you must.
3.  GENERAL RULES ON WHEN PHONES ARE NECESSARY
Don't message or call people physically near you unless you have a very compelling reason. We didn't invent phones that interact with space so you can message someone within earshot about something stupid. Cell phones emit radiation in the microwave band. Don't cook your brain any more than you have to, there's only so much you can lose and still manage to be coherent enough to end up on textsfromlastnight.com.
3a.  It is still ok to rock it like it's 1995 and actually plan things ahead. "I will meet you at time at place" and then sticking to your schedule instead of winging it by cell is perfectly ok. What if the phone dies or something? With the magic of cell phones though, if something CHANGES in the plan, now you have a way to do something about it! This is technology for good, not evil. Plus, studies show the constant interruptions by cell phones are ruining people's abilities to concentrate and making them stupider. Phone etiquette confirms this.

4. WHEN TO CALL VS WHEN TO TEXT

If it's something quick and stupid that is not super time sensitive, send a text message. If you're trying to express something that requires careful wording, send a text message, or better yet, an email. If it's complex sets of instructions, or requires input from the other person, or, as I said earlier, really important, use the phone. No text message conversation should exceed 3 messages for each party, back and forth. And even that is pushing it. There is only one thing worse than a call where you answer and all you have to say is "oh yeah sure, will do - bye." That thing is being interrupted every 15 seconds by a new text message. It is often quicker to talk and better for people's sanity. Remember, I'm a computer nerd: Text message: asynchronous, connectionless. Phone call: synchronous, session-based. You'd never misuse these messaging types on the internet, don't do it in real life.

4a. That said, it is often a good idea to follow up a call with a text, so the person doesn't forget what you need them to do. Addresses, phone numbers, grocery lists...these are good text message things. But make sure the person got them!

4b. It is perfectly ok to again, do it old school and text someone you expect to be busy and say "call when you have a chance." They used to call this paging and it was a good idea.

5. HOW TO USE PHONES IN PUBLIC

I don't care how long they've been around - those bluetooth headsets make you look crazy and self-important. Anybody that is worth talking to in public that isn't actually there is worth the respect of you giving up one hand to hold a phone to your ear.

5a. Similarly, if you can't text and walk, don't do it. If you can't talk and drive, don't do it. Never text and drive, you can't do it.

5b. LOUDLY TALKING ON YOUR PHONE or being glued to your keyboard texting in public is often very rude. Nobody else cares about the awesome night you're about to have. Nobody cares about your babysitting plans. Get up and go to the places where they used to put the phone booths if you have to gab. They were set off by the bathrooms and not at each and every table for a reason - common courtesy.

5c. It is impolite, if you must text in public, to leave your ringer on. It is impolite to leave your cell phone ringer on in places that are fairly quiet, like restaurants, or meetings, or movies.

6. WHAT TO EXPECT FROM OTHER CELLULAR USERS

It is perfectly ok to not answer your phone or not immediately return a phone call. If you get mad when you don't hear from somebody within 10 minutes, you are a bad person. 150 years ago, it'd take four days by mail for somebody to get your letter and write back, if they were in a nearby town. You can wait an hour or two for most conversations today.

6a. As I said, it is a good idea to make plans and stick to them. It is incredibly rude and disrespectful to be both unable to make plans, and refuse to respond promptly to calls/messages. You can badly screw up people's day this way.

8. WHEN TO USE FURTHER FEATURES OF YOUR PHONE

It is EXTREMELY impolite to use flashes on cameras in public. The bar is dark for a reason - we don't want to see you. Stop blinding us and interrupting us by taking yet another duck-faced, pompadoured, bleached out, colored contacted, orange-skinned, brand pimping, malternative drinking photo for Facebook.

Thank you

And with that, I continue to barrage you with media. This one is a video from Lewis C.K., the comedian that Lowellians know from his supporting role in The Invention of Lying. This may be a re-post for me, but he's discussing being appreciative of technology and understanding how it has changed the world. He's right, the world today is amazing and people take it for granted, but technology is to serve us...we can't let it destroy us.

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