Innovation vs. Information Overload (Revisited)


Louis CK’s eloquent rant on smartphones quickly went viral and is already considered an instant classic.

We should appreciate the opportunity to engage in this debate: are our electronic devices, so miraculous on so many levels, doing more harm than good?

I recently had lunch with a former professor and he commented that his students have, in recent years, had a difficult time paying attention. He has taught for over three decades, so his perspective is at once informed and somewhat alarming. He wondered how the “plugged-in” generation will adapt to the workforce. Would young adults in, say, the service industry, find it liberating or torturous to be forbidden access to their mobile devices?

There are no easy answers here, of course. Over the last century, we’ve heard pessimistic voices of experience predict the ways phonographs, then televisions, then video games, and then smartphones would impair our ability to concentrate, or even connect on a basic human level. To be sure, it is always a complicated equation: for every technological advancement there are obvious, even legitimate concerns.

Personally, I don’t think the primary issue here involves devices so much as ubiquity of content, a very 21st Century development. Whether intended—or dismissed—as forms of enlightenment or distraction, there is no doubt that we have quick, easy access to data that would have been inconceivable only a decade ago. Information overload may seem an archaic concept, but it is a very real, mounting concern.

The idea of us doing more things with less time, particularly in the workplace, is not a new phenomenon. Our proclivity for compulsive behavior, be it on the job or at play, is skewered to excellent effect in this old skit.

This had to be made in the early ‘90s because it nails the last vestiges of the old world order: the phones, the fax machine, the suspenders and especially the rolodex. This skit could not be set up the same way today for the simple reason that no office looks like that today. And while it’s amusing to see this harried office manager acting like the proverbial mouse on the wheel, it is disconcerting to consider we are, arguably, operating at a more frenetic pace today, and we scarcely need to move a muscle. All that activity occurs in one centralized place: the monitor of whatever device we are using. The activities this agitated worker bee is engaging in (still called multi-tasking, one presumes) are all occurring now; they merely appear more innocuous because they are trapped in electronic ether, a direct line between our devices and our brains.

Suddenly it’s slightly more unnerving to consider that if, like myself, it’s not uncommon for you to have more than ten windows open at any given time, along with Outlook, a spreadsheet and one or two documents, perhaps music playing, you are doing more than we are accustomed, or capable of doing. This is all happening, all day, inside our heads, and is this not a more intense—and damaging—type of information overload? It’s no wonder if, like myself, at least once a day you open a new window to look something up, get momentarily sidetracked (say, you see the window you’d previously opened and remember you need to finish that task or knock out that email) and then, when you turn back to the welcome screen for a fresh window, have no earthly idea what is was you meant to look for.

Perhaps we should be concerned less about gadgets and the ways we have managed, in these interesting and uncertain times, to outsmart ourselves into being busier every single day. Is this a trend we can slow down? Should we? Or are we advancing our evolution, fast-tracking an ability to connect, communicate and yes, commiserate, in a fashion previously unimagined? Most likely, it need (or should) not be an either/or; what we should try to avoid is blaming innovation and technology for symptoms and problems we’ve created all by ourselves.


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