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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Sensory Overload

Sensory Overload

It’s fashionable to knock email at the moment. Plenty of articles have been written about how it wastes more time than it saves, and many companies are now enforcing strict email management rules in a bid to reclaim productivity. But I don’t believe email is the problem.

We now have a wealth of communication tools and information resources at our fingertips. Every one of them is competing for a bit of our attention, distracting us with sounds, images, flashing lights and vibrations. Every one of the channels and tools available to us is generally well designed as a product in its own right. Few people struggle to use Outlook, or Skype, or a mobile phone, or Firefox. But the problem is that it is never an either/or choice in the modern life — we are constantly multi-tasking in a bid to keep on top of all the information coming to us.

Just looking at my desktops both real and virtual now, I have: a landline; a mobile; Skype and headset (for two SkypeIn numbers and my Skypename); Thunderbird (handling four email accounts); Outlook (handling a fifth email account, plus calendar and task list with pop-up reminders); VNC (for controlling my server and jukebox); and a Timesheet application (again with pop-up reminders).

Any one of these I can handle quite ably, even two or three at a time are fine. But there are days when everything seems to go off at once, or even worse, in a constant stream that prevents any work except talking for an entire day.

In the short term this means developing strategies to handle all the different media: ignoring some calls, putting Skype on DND, turning off pop-up alerts, and ignoring email for large parts of the day. But in the long term I think the technology has to change. While I am sure our brains will eventually evolve to deal with all the various inputs, why should we wait a few thousand years for that to happen?

Instead there needs to be a standard for communications tools to collaborate and share information about our availability — and willingness — to accept inbound information and communications requests. This extends right across the different media: if my Skype is set to DND, I also don’t want calls on my mobile or landline (unless I have specified otherwise — perhaps calls from a certain number, friend or family group). If I am in the middle of writing a long blog entry, I don’t want my anti-virus to pop-up while I am typing, or for Windows to ask me to restart because it has completed an update. In fact, I want an interface that actively helps me to concentrate by blocking out other distractions while I am working, perhaps only offering me contextual information, or messages that are relevant to what I am doing.

This ties in very much with the media filtering technology that is the ultimate goal of most search companies: they want to understand you well enough to suggest TV, books and articles that you might like and save you trawling the enormous oceans of data on the internet. That’s great for home, but if we’re going to stop the white collar classes becoming a nation of digital fidgets, some of that effort really needs to be directed at the workplace.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Is our future fractured or diverse?

Is our future fractured or diverse?

Who are you? How is that identity defined? What groups do you associate with? And which ones do you define yourself against?

These are the issues increasingly at the heart of modern politics, according to a recent article in Foreign Affairs magazine by Francis Fukuyama. No longer is the debate defined by who has what, but by who we are. Traditional class lines have been disrupted by signifiers that have taken on greater importance. Low-friction global communications have allowed us to build tribes that are no longer defined by geography, as I have written about before.

This last point is, in many ways, a good thing. As one Twitter friend put it yesterday: “Why would I want to associate with my neighbour? I’d much rather join a global group of people I actually like.” The freeing of communication has allowed us to find perhaps a truer sense of our own identities, by meeting like-minded people around the world who share our hobbies, interests, or deeper definitions of who we are. Other people who challenge norms and status quos and want to explore what it might mean to be human beyond historical limitations.

But increasingly digital as our lives may be now, there are still issues to grapple with that are defined by space and place. From the simplest issue of bin collections, to more thorny issues of rights, benefits, and education. How do we address these issues that are shared and contested among increasingly fractured communities sharing the same spaces?

Fukuyama suggests that common creeds form part of the answer. Shared sets of ideals around which countries are built.

For me there are parallels here in how shared systems like the internet are created: millions of components of both hardware and software, created by thousands of different companies, operating to a huge variety of different ends. And yet through a set of shared standards, somehow co-operating to achieve a sufficient level of coherence that it all works — most of the time.

The problem with Fukuyama’s solution for me is that it operates at a state level, and I am no longer convinced that we can maintain a shared state identity even in a country as small as the United Kingdom. Or rather, there may not be sufficient shared identity across the country to maintain coherence in that national community. Rather, we have to acknowledge that there is an increasingly devolved identity, just as we are — slowly — acknowledging the need for more devolved power.

I think we can create a sense of shared purpose across diverse communities in a shared space. But that sense of purpose can only be defined in part at a state level. What will be much more important is a sense of local identity that binds us to our neighbours around the things that matter that are inevitably defined by space. These people may not be our friends, they may form part of groups against which we choose to define ourselves. But we will have to accept a measure of compromise over the issues in which we have a shared interest.

That compromise is unlikely to be forced upon us. Communities of shared interest are rarely built from the top down. They have to be constructed from the bottom up. Doing this will require renewed efforts to overcome identity-based boundaries.

I’ve never liked the term ‘tolerance’ in this context. Surely we should be striving for more than that? Acceptance, understanding, or resolution. But these things take time, and in that time we will have communities with a proportion of shared interests that need to take action. They will need to get past their potential areas of conflict to work for their common good.

This sounds a little light weight: “all we need is peace, love and harmony”? Hardly a radical conclusion. But I come back to my position on the future: short term pessimist, long term optimist. The direction of travel for the human race is a positive one when it comes to resolving differences. More and more is handled by communication, less and less by violence. I think we can and will reach a situation where we can celebrate the rich diversity of our race while reliably building ad-hoc coalitions to achieve shared goals, even between groups with wildly different, and sometimes conflicting, ideals.

But it’s going to take time. The next few years will continue to be challenging.

Tom Cheesewright