Would you give up a Saturday to help reduce information overload? On February 25, nearly 30 people—from academia, industry, consulting and the military—did just that.
They gathered at the PariSoma Innovation Loft in San Francisco for a day of presentations, discussions and brainstorming organized by the Information Overload Research Group. (I’m a founding director.)
Dr. David Levy, professor at the University of Washington’s Information School, said information overload represents “a constellation of current cultural concerns” that include busyness, fragmentation of attention (as in multitasking) and acceleration (where results are expected sooner).
He compared the overload challenge to the environmental movement, which “started with the awareness that something is out of balance with our relationship to the natural world.” He said many aspects of environmentalism—including research, education, policy setting, technology development and changes in social practices—also apply to information overload.
Contemplative multitasking—Dr. Levy and two associates conducted an experiment with 50 HR people in Seattle and San Francisco. They divided them into three groups (a control group, a group that received training in meditation, and a group that was taught body relaxation). Before and after the training, they had “lifelike multitasking experiences”—trying to write a memo while experiencing a multitude of interruptions. The meditators reported being less stressed after the training, and they also spent more “connected time” on single tasks. “They actually strengthened their ability not to pay attention to something and to stay with something,” said Levy. “It shows the mind can be trained to ignore input and be less taken away by distractions.”
Undergraduate overload—“We’ve been assuming the ‘born digital’ generation has it handled,” said Levy (at right in photo), but research is finding that’s not so. Levy described an experiment at Georgetown University and the University of Washington in which students abstained from a technological practice for up to three days (i.e., turn off your smart phone, stay off Facebook, etc.). Typical comments: “I felt like I was more engaged in the world,” “You can’t compare texting to being with someone,” and “We grew up in a culture that was very multitasking-oriented—where time out is a punishment. Students should learn when they’re young how to calm down and be focused.”
“I think they’re actually looking for help,” Levy said. “It’s a real opportunity for cross-generational dialogue—and it isn’t happening. There are real opportunities for the older and younger generation to learn from each other.”
Mindful awareness—In classrooms and workshops, Levy is attempting to help people be more deliberately conscious of their information practices. They discover, for instance, that the impulse to check email is often tied to boredom or anxiety—then construct personal guidelines that they share with the group.
“The challenge we face is not just unplugging in order to recover our sense of balance and well being, but it’s understanding how we can be online and be balanced,” Levy said. “This requires understanding of self as well as technology design.”
Coming next: More insights from the Overloaded 2012 conference.