RootsCamp notes VI, information overload

Micah Sifry and Nancy Scola from TechPresident hosts a session on information overload. It is very conversational, so my notes are a bit scattered.

Micah opens the discussion by suggesting that we face both a personal problem of information overload, and a collective/political/societal problem of information overload.

Both individually and as a society, our inbox is too full, we don’t find the time to respond to things properly, and are tyrannized by the inflow and the many distractions that follows from it.

A sort of meso-level version of it is the difficulties the netroots/progressive bloggers, progressives what not had in reacting quickly enough to the bailout plan. There was too much going on, and people couldn’t get their heads around it before it was pretty much over and the agenda had moved on.

He asks people around the room for strategies of dealing with it.

Someone suggests that part of what we need to do is to redefine productivity and accept that “staying connected” requires a lot of work that does not have a tangible outcome. In contrast to ‘networking is notworking’, he essentially says ‘networking is networking’, and without all the work that goes into it, the network wouldn’t be there. Good point.

People offer variuos personal ways of dealing with overload, from limiting the number of tabs they have open on their computers, to being deliberately off-line for some of the day. Others counter that personal solutions are necessary, but that they don’t really get at the pressure that lead to the problem in the first place–being offline does not reduce the amount of things clamoring for your attention.

Erica Sagrans points out that no individual institution has an incentive to hold back and not overload–everyone is afraid of not cutting through the clutter, and will do their utmost to communicate, only exacerbating the problem at hand.

Matt Lockshin adds that an additional problem that is often overlooked is the ‘pollution’ of the networks by actors who aren’t in it in good faith, people who spew what Harry Frankfurter has technically defined as “bullshit”. This I think is a very important point, that the very networks we use to remain attached and act collectively are also the homes of organizing-spam or social-spam, were people latch on to groups for various reasons that the group itself remains indifferent to, and try to insert it into the agenda (of course, it is hard to make a good distinction between honest attempts to change/modify a group/networks behavior and agenda and then more or less malicious practices that essentially function to paralyze networks).

I chip in and suggest that the problem is especially acute for those who have unclearly defined jobs in the parts of the network society that does not operate on the basis of a clear division of labor–say, you are a journalist, but also expected to be a new media producer, or you are a political organizer, but also expected to be able to manage databases, etc etc. Here, the erosion of the division of labor and its institutionalizations in organizations that enforce it that provides one way of dealing with information overload is absent, and combines with the exponential growth of “stuff out there” that comes with the lowered barriers to entry to produce something of a perfect storm of information overload.

Micah ends with a call for networks to behave a little more like networks, i.e. to accept divisions of labor and systems of trust and cognitive shortcuts within a given assemblage, I do this, you do that, and unless I have reason to believe you for some reason won’t do it, or won’t do it properly, I will simply rely on you for that, in short, in a nice phrase, “organize smart crowds in the face of the firehose of information”.


One response to “RootsCamp notes VI, information overload

  1. A couple points. First, the person I mentioned was Harry Frankfurt.

    Also, I encourage you to read “On Bullshit” and in light of the 95 Theses of the Cluetrain Manifesto. I think it will make the point I was trying to make more clear.

    I wasn’t just talking about spammers but rather those who engage in political discourse with the type of normative standards that come from the field of marketing. My point was that we have a large number of bad-faith actors in our political discourse who are indifferent to the truth of what they say and instead say whatever they think will be the most likely to get others to do what they (the bad-faith actors) want. This makes the quality of the discourse much lower and it requires time and energy to be spent on coming to understand that the bullshitters are bullshitting or demonstrating that they are to others.

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