Feb 282008

Lately, much has been written about the “dilemma” of too much e-mail. See Zeldes et al., or Krill for instance) Some write on this from the perspective of firms. They suggest that “knowledge workers” are spending too much time on e-mail, time when they could be being “productive.” The writers claim that we must deal with the “problem” of “information overload” or “infomania” as if this were something new, and as if there were a possible global “solution” to this “problem.”

I suppose the authors of these arguments would add instant and text messaging, messages over social networks such as Facebook or in Second Life, various forms of teleconferencing, and so on. I’ll just call all this e-mail for short. Also, I’m not concerned with spam here, but with e-mail that somehow seems worthwhile to the recipients. This supposed e-mail problem cannot be looked at in the ahistorical way the writers suppose, but must be seen in the context of changing economic systems. It is that context I will focus on here.

The “Prudent King” Beats Us to It
Information overload as a phenomenon is of course nothing new; the term was in use long before e-mails were ubiquitous, starting easily 30 years ago. Well over 500 years ago, although no one had heard of the term “information overload,” King Philip II of Spain along with many of his aides, were inundated with handwritten reports, requests, queries, etc. They kept this “prudent king” busy from morning to night for over 40 years. King Philip thus mostly held together a huge empire, but what made him the ruler was precisely that numerous people sought attention from him and in so doing, necessarily gave him attention in return.

Today, one of the main reasons people read their e-mail is undoubtedly because it gives them the sense of being at the center of attention — in effect the centers of of their own little personal empires. After all, each e-mail received demonstrates that someone thinks they are important enough to try to get their attention, at least apparently by paying them attention in return. E-mail appears to be addressed personally to the recipient, and often is. The very fact you have received it means someone seems to have been thinking of you. If you fail to respond, you run the risk of falling off the radar. If you make it impossible for anyone to send you e-mail, you lose a sense of your own importance in the outer world.

A Fan’s Notes

Or think of e-mail as like “fan mail.” A star can measure her worth by the amount of this she gets. She may choose to reply formulaically, but if she can stand the effort of replying —at least minimally — in person, she is likely to tighten her connection with fans. In terms of e-mails, each person becomes a minor “star,” who who would suffer a small defeat were she to disappoint one of her fans. Equally bad is to disappoint part of her apparent audience collectively, say the members of some formal or informal listserv [by an informal listeserv, I just mean a group of people who are cc’d together quite often by any one of them] or a social networks such as a grouping within Facebook. To ignore what such groups send out or never to take active part in their interchanges risks losing one’s role as a focus in that community.

This talk of stars and fans might hints that something new is happening. What? One major difference between King Philip’s day and now is simply technological. In the sixteenth century, sending messages over many miles was an arduous process from beginning to end — arduous in the hand writing, sealing, finding a messenger to to take it in general the direction of the king, and then often waiting many months for the message to reach the King’s palace, where it might languish for more months before being answered.

Technology has certainly advanced since then, and even since the more widespread notice of information overload thirty odd years ago. Before personal computers were widespread, sending a written or typed message was much more complex than e-mail is, and often required some sort of use of a stenographer, secretary, personal assistant or typing pool to be at all efficient. This meant that relatively few were in the position of originating letters. With e-mail has come a great democratization, but that just means far more e-mails can be sent and therefore received.

When you receive an e-mail, furthermore, it is extremely easy to open. Neither you nor anyone else has to pick up, sort, and distribute the mail. No one has to open each envelope individually or unfold and mark the letter within as received. It arrives with an automatic date and time stamp. All this encourages the flow of ever more e-mail.

Beyond the Obvious

However, change at a deeper level is also taking place. The number of people who now work or spend time in settings where they easily can send and receive e-mails has grown fantastically. Compared to King Philip’s era or even to thirty years ago, a far higher percentage of the world’s people do not have to engage in actual physical labor, such as farming (or tending flocks) rowing the galleys, carrying things and people on their own shoulders or backs or in their saddle bags, making things, being part of armies, etc.

Philip II ruled early in the development of market-based industrialization. Today industrialization is fading out in terms of the hold it has over people’s actual lives and focus. In the twenty-first century a whole new kind of economy — the Attention System (or the Attention Economy as I define it, not as in Davenport and Beck or others who think it only deals with advertising or simply the paying but not the desire for or receiving of attention) — has now come to the fore. An increasingly large — even if not formally or consciously recognized — preoccupation is the securing, individually, of the scarce attention of the rest of the world — or whatever part of this attention one can snag.

The aim in this new economy is not to be productive from the viewpoint of the firm in which one formally happens to work, which is tied to the old economy. Regardless of where one works, what is of increasing importance is the attention one receives, wherever it comes from, via networking of whatever sort. Companies can only hold themselves together if their leaders (formal or informal) can genuinely hold a great deal of the attention of both their wider audiences and of their own workers. But they cannot hope to succeed in this just by shutting off outside connections, especially today, for with the wide variety of means to to stay connected to whomever one wants — Blackberries, iPhones, browser connected e-mails (Yahoo! or Google, for instance) and the many social networks — even an employee locked into a company has plenty of ways of reaching and being reached by those outside it.

Worth Stressing?
This does not mean that the new economy is somehow stress free or devoid of competition. Quite the contrary, in fact. The total attention the world can offer is limited; thus the competition for it keeps getting hotter, once it becomes seen as desirable in any form. E-mail’s ease means that is going to continue to be relied on, and by more and more senders, many of whom will continue to seek to make their messages as irresistible as possible. The senders do want attention after all.

By age three or four, most children have learned to modulate their efforts to get attention depending on their own sense of urgency and the circumstances. One learns, for instance, not to scream at full volume at all times. Adults dealing with e-mail have mostly developed a keen if not always conscious sense of how to get attention for themselves, through their ideas, jokes passed along, pointers to others deserving of attention etc. They and their recipients will continue to refine these abilities, some with greater success than others. That is about the best we can hope for.

Each person must develop her individual ways of dealing with the overload and handling the stress. Whoever is less easily stressed or finds inner resources that allow better coping will likely do best. The limitations of e-mail mean that cultivating real relationships in person will continue to be highly necessary for some time, and finding the right individual balance among the complex of relationships, real and virtual, will be essential.

Don’t Drink the Kool-Aid

But no general contrivance to reduce e-mails (always excepting true spam) can work, whether for a firm, some other kind of association, or for the world at large. Any such attempt ignores the very value of e-mail receiving as well as sending for the individual. It ignores the rise of the Attention System (Attention Economy). Whatever contrivance is tried will surely lead to work-arounds, usually rendering the contrivance null and void in short order. If work-arounds are impossible, loyalty to whatever entity has adopted the contrivance will plummet, so its adoption will prove counterproductive. (I would guess most smart leaders intuitively grasp this anyway, so they are unlikely to adopt such contrivances in the first place. )

A Burden We’d Better Bear
Information overload really means not enough attention to satisfy everyone’s desire for it. This can only end if almost everyone agrees not to compete for attention — or if the entire technosphere breaks down in some general calamity. A peace treaty of the first sort seems far, far away. Let’s hope we escape a calamity as well. If so, then information overload or infomania will be with us for a long, long time.

Feb 192008

This is supposed to be the era of knowledge. Yet I think we should be increasingly worried that it is in fact even more the era of ignorance. The two are in some ways complementary. An expert has long been known, at least by cynics, as someone who “knows more and more about less and less.” That means that even experts — as well as the rest of us — also know less and less about more and more. And more gets missed by even experts. We might view expanding knowledge as a yeasty sort of bread — the faster it expands, the bigger the holes all through it. Meanwhile, there are new reasons that cause people to adopt ignorance as a stance, as all right, as even desirable. Many people have noticed this, but it seems to me some of the root causes and the nature of the new ignorance escape them, just as some elements still escape me.

Still, despite my own ignorance of the topic, this this is my contribution to the study of ignorance, a study I think we should all take more seriously.

So, welcome to Ignorance Studies 101.

First, ignorance comes in more than one flavor.

Ignorance type A = not knowing what no one else knows either, also known as “Society-Wide Ignorance.” As overall societal knowledge grows and grows, igA obviously decreases.

However, that leads to a growth in Ignorance type B, not knowing what some other people do know. If experts each “know more and more about less and less,” a corollary is that they also know less and less about more and more of what is known. Non-experts also each find igB growing.

But both types of ignorance can be further sub-divided into: Ignorance about things humans cannot affect (call this “Nature”); and Ignorance about things that we can, including things that humans ourselves create (call this the “Human World”). Of course, as knowledge of Nature grows, so does our often unknowing ability to affect it, increasing Human-world ignorance in a sometimes dangerous way. (Think global warming.)

Ignorance about ignorance grows too: Ignorance about what is known (by society, in other words by someone somewhere) — and ignorance about who knows or does not know what. Finally, comes ignorance about whom and how to ask about what one does not know. You can’t even begin to ask if you don’t know you don’t know, but even if you do know you are ignorant, that may not help you much.

What about Google and Wikipedia?

Wait! Don’t Google and Wikipedia and the web in general immeasurably increase each person’s effective knowledge and so decrease effective ignorance? I certainly use both of these frequently and think they are each a real step forward. Still, knowledge is not simply an assemblage of information; it must be rooted in an understanding of connections, limitations, context, and so on. If you could study all of Google, or even follow a line of links from each and every web page that surfaces from a particular query, or could study all of Wikipedia, then you would surely have knowledge, indeed almost all knowledge on a great many subjects. but this is clearly beyond anyone’s ability. So you would have to select on the basis of prior knowledge, and the incompleteness and holes in that knowledge are precisely why neither of these tools can be assumed to provide you with effective knowledge, or effective lack of ignorance. Instead, the best they can do is little more than make us more aware of the very breadth and depth of of our ignorance. As they enlarge every day, our ignorance only grows.

Attention, Knowledge and Ignorance

If I’m right, our actions are increasingly governed by the scarcity of attention that we can pay and even more by the scarcity of the attention we can get from others. That is the Attention System, or what I meant originally when I introduced the so much misunderstood term “Attention Economy.” Living in this system greatly affects and is affected by what we know or don’t as well as what find it valuable to know or to skip.
One key axiom of attention is that to pay it to someone, you must align your mind to hers. The more you know what she knows, at least what she knows that is relevant to her right now, the better you can pay attention. If, for example, you don’t even know what language she is speaking you will have a very hard time paying attention.
The first corollary: If you want attention, don’t assume much specialized knowledge. In other words: assume ignorance on the part of your listener, viewer or reader, and don’t challenge that ignorance too much. Example: the US media, but also most media throughout the world. This also explains much about politicians, business people etc.

The second corollary: don’t bother learning what won’t get you attention, because you have to pay a lot of attention to do that.
This second corollary explains a lot:
• The ignorance about many things (history, geography, science, politics) of American high school students, (along with countless other students around the world);
• The narrow focus of many business people, entertainers, scholars and other experts, etc;
• The appeal of religious fundamentalism, at least in part.
• The fact that the pursuit of knowledge itself is increasingly subject to what the philosopher or historian of science Thomas Kuhn called “paradigm shifts.”

Once Upon a Paradigm

In a paradigm shift, knowledge gets a new basis, with some brand-new central ideas, and in the process, old knowledge can safely be ignored as no longer relevant. I think it works like this. As a field grows, so much knowledge accumulates in it, that only narrow specialists can really familiarize themselves with it. Then, new people find it much easier to start over with an almost clean slate, which they can if there are hints of another paradigm around.The new one explains certain phenomena while allowing a completely new set of knowledge to be developed. “Early adopters” of this new knowledge are at a special advantage.They can reach a relatively large audience without themselves necessarily having to know much.

Paradigm shifts of this sort are not limited to science. The same causes make advantageous to be a fan of or participant in a new sport, a new music genre, or a new kind of art. You don’t have to be familiar with all the nuances established over many years. Similar reasons led to young people eagerly adopting new technologies, new kinds of web links (such as Facebook or MySpace or Second Life) new computers, new operating systems, programs, new video games, etc..

Through this process, the attentional value of having old knowledge rapidly decreases. This would be fine if the new knowledge always included or trumped the old, and if there were not whole areas left out as “progress” increases.

What a Tangled Web..

We are all now intertwined in a global society, six billion strong. As the universe of knowledge relevant in some way to each of our lives keeps expanding, the share of it we individually have any mastery over keeps dropping. In terms of attention, the accelerated demands on our attention outrace our individual supply at ever-greater speeds. We do not know enough to form reasonable judgements about many matters that will affect us quite a bit, nor do we know sufficiently well how our actions affect the world. We are often less and less capable of knowing that we do not know, or even knowing whom to ask about who would know about a host of issues. So we punt. With ignorance and half understanding, a certain carelessness is the inevitable outcome.

We can see the effects of that all around us. Take the growing technosphere in which our lives are ever-further embedded. We assume, for instance, that someone at the phone company or the cable company or the computer company or the software company or even the open-source community is “minding the store,” but often it turns out that as tasks have been sub-divided and farmed out, even simple possibilities have not been considered, or whoever was supposed to know about a certain issue has been downsized, fired, retired or forgotten. Systems simply do not work, or work increasingly badly. The managers of such businesses do not know much about the desires, limitations, habits and customs of their customers. The eagerly install such things as voice-activated automated phone systems, which add to the complexities of correcting or even finding out about how to solve common or unusual problems. And life is full of unusual problems.

Here in Northern California, we have perhaps the world’s largest congeries of technical expertise, but it is not large enough so that the companies trying to save a buck will be able to hire technically competent and knowledgeable people to do things like keep Internet or cable or even electric services going seamlessly. Perhaps even if they paid fairly well, no one would find it of interest to do seemingly mundane maintenance when that same person could be involved creating something completely new that potentially could be of interest or even value to millions.

Or take the money economy in its most direct form — the world of high finance. Very clever people invented things like mortgage bundling, which led to the bundling of sub-prime loans in ways that most actors assumed to be pretty fail-safe, at least in the short time horizon on which investment bankers now work. Theoretically, rating agencies were supposed to evaluate the the risks associated with such loans, but they simply did not understand them well enough, it seems. Rating financial risk may be one of those rather uninteresting areas, most of the time, anyway. No one gets a lot of attention for such activity, unless she offers a completely unexpected rating. If there had been no rating agencies, the bankers who took on the loans might have felt they had to be a bit more cautious, but as it was, it was easy to pay minimal attention, since it was easy to take for granted that the rating agencies knew what they were doing. No one was rating the raters. Similarly, it now seems, many other kinds of loans, such as industrial bonds and “commercial paper” may have been incorrectly rated as to risk.

Banks have suddenly realized that they are in the dark as to the risk environment, so they are newly frightened about extending loans even to other big banks. This re-creates the same sort of problem that occurred at the time of the Great Depression, even though the amount of knowledge of the financial (money-based) economic systems is supposedly so much greater.

Not Ads but Adages

Politicians are another class of people who seemingly know less and less about more and more. They rely on experts to fill them in on how to handle all sorts of areas, but these experts in turn may not really be terribly knowledgeable, nor do they necessarily understand the complex interconnections necessary to make their advice any good. Whether the subject is education, healthcare, international relations, security from terrorism, control of media, the environment or economics, politicians of all stripes seemingly adopt a few rather dogmatic ideas as a way to get by. The citizenry who elect them are even more reliant on mere adages to understand what is going on. Or they rely on the politicians to find out what they themselves have given up trying to understand. But politicians dare not go against those who do believe in certain adages, whether it is “the free market is always best” or “we need protection from foreigners stealing our jobs” (or both) or “Islamo-fascists are out to get us” or “Israel is the biggest violator of human rights, ” or “it’s cold this winter, so global warming is a false alarm,” or “we need population control in Africa to slow down global warming” among equally many other views based mostly on over-simplified ignorance. Awareness of ignorance itself breeds paranoia, such as the conspiracy theories floating around 9/11, or the view that those who warn about global warming are secretly trying to impose socialism on everyone.

These simplified adages function as paradigms, even though there is often very little behind them, and they can often be very easily be replaced, with new paradigms — that is, nice fresh adages. When a politician such as Barack Obama excites voters with talk of hope and change, he succeeds largely through his lack of being specific. If he tried to spell out detailed policies, many of his listeners would not be able to continue to pay attention, though some others might be able to follow him and perhaps like what they hear.


A deeper problem is that no politician really is willing to recognize that a deep change is under way. They may pay too much lip service and attention to the bromides of conventional economists to see that we are entering a whole new era, in which the very meaning, for instance, of continued economic success is thrown into question.

But no Air Crashes

We should expect that the varying degrees of ignorance I have been discussing will eventually cause more and more severe human and natural world problems, if we do not find some way to keep growing ignorance somehow at bay. How might we do all this? One example that comes to mind is an area where the technosphere seems to be excelling of late, rather than breaking down. It is the system that prevents air crashes. The example may be instructive. To be continued…..