Hacked-Up Life

The Troubles   Wire Service

Empty Desk = Empty MindI had meant to spend a couple of brief minutes this morning writing about how incredibly busy I have been in recent days, how fragmented it often seems as I leap between multiple tasks roles/mental frameworks/whatever hat-related-metaphors. Funny thing is that I was too busy to get to it. Well, not that funny.

The five computers (sharing four monitors) on my desk (plus the hidden sixth one, used to snap the pic) are only the start — the snap doesn't show the other three computers on my workdesk at home (augmented by the traveling Dell as #4) or the Tivo or the kids or the actual physical 43 folders sitting next to the kitchen phone or the developer events or the time spent trying to prove to myself that I am actually a social person or the workouts or the latest stack of books that's been growing and spreading in the space around my bed (still no time for Happiness BTW).

By happy (?) irony, the bloglines today are full of quiet whispers about this New York Times article called "Meet the Life Hackers" which specifically addresses the topic of attention scatter. I love their description of the work of UCI professor Gloria Mark: "she set out to measure precisely how nuts we've all become."

I've written here in the past about attention being the great scarcity item of the current age — specifically about it as a limiter for the potential growth of services and social networks like flickr. There are only so many minutes in the day, only so many of them can we spend switching between contexts and on emotional refractory periods (unless we prefer to avoid all emotional involvement in any of our tasks), and we are all stuck — like it or not — facing our own internal Dunbar number (whose effects I watched vividly some years ago at Pixar, when it grew to 200 employees and then bifurcated the workforce into two buildings...). You can only have so many active friends. You can only read so many blogs. At some point even the best content, in excess and without structure, reduces to valueless noise.

(Art-world aside: this factor may be a key one in distinguishing the work of Chris Jordan from that of Ed Burtynsky — Chris embraces the noise. But that's another post!)

You can use other human readers as a helpful filter, a la del.icio.us and now flock but even then there's a danger, as evidenced by the recent swell of support for "Web 2.0" followed by a new murmuring undercurrent of concern over groupthink, driven by too many people reading the same RSS feeds at the same time. A crowd does, via simple evolutionary process, filter noise — but when you follow the crowd, you're — following the crowd.

What's not entirely clear to me is whether this is all a bad thing. Perhaps in the spirit of Lakoff (or even neuro-liguistic programming, whether you buy its whole package or not) we should consider the framing provided by our language. Is the simple term "interuption" a negative or positive one? What about "news"? "Surprise"? Is it better to be "scattered" or to be a "busy bee"? What was that about idle hands?

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