Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Information-A-Go-Go

Daragh recently let me borrow his copy of ‘Singularity Sky’, Charlie Stross’ debut sci-fi novel. One of its themes is the strongly disruptive effect upon a society of a technology (so-called Cornucopia Machines) that removes the cost of, and barriers to, all production and physical manufacturing at the level of the individual. This point intrigues me today, as I ponder a far, far less dramatic disruption point: I think I may have wandered into a self-induced bout of Information Overload.

Today we have our own ‘cornucopia’ to deal with – the vast silos of free information clamouring for our attention online. There are no costs (or only marginal costs) implicit in accessing so much of this information that I find it increasingly easy to become over-subscribed. I try to fool myself into thinking that I can keep on top of multiple sources of information: web news, blogs, podcasts, print magazines and books. While really not keeping up with many of them and still piling even more in on top of my mental in-tray. Seems like I have not yet succeeded in shifting my mindset from a scarcity-orientated model.

At the latest count I have about 16.8 days worth of audio on my iPod. If I had to estimate how much of that I had actually managed to listen to in the last six months, it could not be more than four days. (That would be an interesting functionality to add into iTunes: a pie-chart showing that breakdown, also some bar-charts of listening stats by category or genre, while I am at it...) But the relevant fact here is that the total amount of audio in my iPod is rising at more-or-less a daily rate. Not a weekly or fortnightly rate, which was the level of increase that I originally estimated, based on the amount of new music I thought the iPod would encourage me to buy. Last November, when I got my iPod, there was little or no podcast activity online and I had not given any thought about using it for spoken word. Today, I find myself caching audio-book chapters, interviews and recordings of presentations from IT Conversations and the like. Not to mention geekoid radio programmes. Then add in downloads from the sources of Free-To-Air licensed music that are out there. That is often 100 to 150MB of new audio going into my ‘Check This Out’ playlist file daily. Two forty-minute commutes each workday is only going to eat so much of that particular elephant.

With the AvantGo mini-browser on my Palm PDA, I get the daily feeds of all online content from the BBC News site, Guardian Unlimited, Guardian Books, Guardian Film, Guardian Media, The New York Review of Books and Reuters UK. I try to skim that lot on the commute. (When I am not scribbling down random blog musings like this one.) However, there is no real sense of cumulative information overload with AvantGo, as each time I sync my Palm it does a complete rewrite. So you only ever have access to the most up-to-date content, there is no deep archive.

Not so with my RSS feed reader, as I am discovering. The fact that the number of unread posts appears beside each feed has an interesting side-effect. I find that it encourages two categories of feed use. Those I check every day, keeping on top of the unread posts. And those where, once the number unread goes above a certain threshold, I keep putting off reading because of the amount of time it is going to take me. Until I eventually do a complete blitz and tackle 150–200 posts at a time from that feed. The volume of posting per feed is also an influence here – you would not want to fall too far behind reading BoingBoing or you could be swamped in hundreds of unread posts. But I definitely give myself RSS-guilt when I see all those unread posts. Because, well you never know, but one of them might contain that one insight, novel idea or relevant factoid that would be really helpful to me today...

Even posting this now has reminded me about all of the white papers and discussion papers I have stored as PDFs on this PDA filed under: ‘For Reading Later’. (Doh!)

The aspect of this which inspired this post is that, after subscribing to and accumulating and perusing all of this information, how much relevant content am I actually retaining? Because – if I do not process the useful information in some way and convert it into knowledge, opinion, analysis or new ideas – then I am really only surfing in the most literal sense. Merely gliding along the surface of this volume of content and not thinking in-depth about enough of it.

Practically speaking, I should create more elaborate and effective filters and learn to use the Unsubscribe button more ruthlessly. Perhaps I have too much free time? (A situation that will most likely remedy itself in the not-to-distant future.)

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