Saturday, June 06, 2009

The Age of Brevity: Twitter, Ignite & adapting to info ov'load

Used to be when the term information overload was bandied about freely -- as far back as even the late 1980's, as I recall. It seems rather odd -- mysterious, in fact -- that now, when the rate at which information is flung in our faces has grown by many orders of magnitude, we don't hear about information overload (IOL) anymore. Has IOL become the New Normal -- so commonplace, so ubiquitous, so inescapable that we are now resigned to it, having accepted it like the air we breathe? Maybe -- although, given the severe limitations of our cognitive systems, and the fact that our cognitive capacities could not have evolved and adapted in so short a time, that New Normal is unlikely to have arrived yet. Perhaps we have changed our ways of dealing with information to fit our limitations. There are at least two signs of this having occurred:

Exhibit A is the unanticipatedly wild success of Twitter, also known as microblogging, which lets you say anything you want in 140 characters or less, to anybody who wishes to follow you (technical term). 'Star' Twitterers such as movie star Ashton Kutcher have hundreds of thousands of followers, hanging on to every word they tweet.

Exhibit B: The rapid spread of 'micro-presentation' events such as Pecha-Kucha (chit-chat, in Japanese) and Ignite. At these events each presenter is allowed exactly 20 slides; further, each slide is displayed for only a limited amount of time and then transitions to the next -- 20 seconds in a Pecha-Kucha and 15 seconds in an Ignite event; each speaker gets only 6 minutes and 40 seconds, and 5 minutes, respectively to convey their message.
Both Twitter and Ignite/Pecha-Kucha are clearly adaptations of existing communication methods that force the message sender to be concise and focused so that recipients can consume a greater variety of information from many more sources while still not experiencing information overload.

Perhaps the increasingly brief exchanges are also a sign of the coming Singularity. It is possible that we will reach a stage when our exchanges can get no briefer even while the information flowing towards us transmogrifies into a tsunami. And then, we will need to innovate entirely different paradigms of communication based on heretofore unimaginable technologies that aren't even remotely like anything we've employed during the entire course of human history. What will they be like? And since the info tsunami has major implications for education and learning, what will the future of education look like. As it is, children are being compelled to 'learn' increasing quantities of 'information' earlier in their lives than in previous generations. We may be already close to the point when this process cannot continue any further without placing such great stress on children that they collapse from the load and begin to suffer a variety of cognitive and behavioral pathologies. The suicides one hears of among school children during final examinations is just one sign of a growing but largely unrecognized problem.

We need to start innovating and designing those technologies for adaptation right away, rather than wait for the entire system to collapse under the strain -- and the lives of an entire generation of children being ruined.

[Update: The term seems to have been coined by Alvin Toffler, although I have not sought confirmation from sources other than Wikipedia.]

[Update 2: Clay Shirky opines that "It's not information overload: It is filter failure". I don't know that it is the one rather than the other; I think it is both, and the one (information overload) necessarily begets the other (filtering mechanism) if we hope to retain our sanity. Twitter and Pecha-Kucha are the filtering mechanisms that Shirky speaks of.]

[Update 3: Getting it quickly and briefly, even if somewhat inaccurately increasinglhy,trumps getting it late and at length, even if it turns out to be accurate. This is seen in the Gadget rumor site Gizmodo getting the scoop on Steve Jobs' non-appearance at the MacWorld conference and trade show in January 2009 for reasons of poor health. There was no definitive information and no traditional media source reported on it. The rumor turned out to be true -- and Jobs' mythic status among consumers as well as on Wall St. made his non-appearance a big deal too. The rumor sites are frequently mistaken, but readers understand this, but nevertheless prefer the early buzz to stale, if accurate reports. Life moves far too quickly in these times of information overload for anyone to waste their precious moments on earth in reviewing history -- they want to know what's going to happen tomorrow rather than dwell on what happened yesterday. The news media as we know it will begin to look like the Department of History in short order.]

No comments: