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.

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Tom Cheesewright