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The Internet runs through it

March 17, 2011

I came across a book review on InsideHigherEd.com for Ann M. Blair’s “Too much to know: Managing scholarly information before the modern age(http://www.amazon.com/Too-Much-Know-Scholarly-Information/dp/0300112513/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1300369473&sr=8-1) and something about the concept of information overload screamed to me. Not a whisper or a gentle suggestion; but a scream. Blair (2010) traces the events and innovations that have led to the preceptually modern academic condition of information overload, presenting historical analysis supporting the thesis that information overload has been around for a long time and that the fairly recent technological developments one might attribute to information overload are not what they seem (i.e. “new”).

As a doctoral candidate I know that information overload in my teaching and research can be a real problem. Selecting good content management systems and bibliographic reference tools is a must for all scholars who don’t want to recreate the wheel each time they revisit a subject. However, the sophistication and reach of some content management tools such as social networking bookmarking sites (e.g. Del.ic.ious) and posting aggregators (e.g. Posterous) can indeed make matters more complicated than they need to be.

When coming across information that is potentially bookmark-worthy, I contemplate whether or not the information is worth the extra steps of logging into my social networking bookmark site to add the information. Granted, the process doesn’t take much time, however, the action involves time that might be better spent on something that would be considered less of a distractor from other items of greater importance. While I go through my crude little decision tree of “add/don’t add” I feel the pull of questions such as “will I ever access this information again?” and “shouldn’t I be doing X instead of this?” The simple process of decision, on the face of it, has invariably sent my mind to other places, perhaps diluting my will to attack my ubiquitous “don’t want to do” list leaving me with the choice of what I call “technological restraint”.

Technological restraint involves deciding whether or not a technological solution is really a solution [to a problem/need that actually exists] and further, whether or not the solution will [in the end] cause more work. As an example, I have considered putting all of my recipes into electronic form. I have also considered scanning the many boxes of sheet music in my basement. The decision point in each case has hinged upon the likelihood of my actually retrieving the information once I spent copious amounts of time digitizing my “data”. In both cases, I quickly determined the cost (time) outweighs the benefit (easy retrieval; later, much later, if at all). Each time I encounter such decisions I realize there are a billion opportunities to waste a billion hours on a billion things that will have zero payoff. It follows then, that every technological choice presents the opportunity for technological restraint. Such epiphanies have saved me from self-sabotage more than a few times, but not before I’ve taken the time to ponder the cost/benefit ratios.

The overarching question is this: does the process of deciding whether technological restraint is applicable amount to a time savings within the work day. In my case, the answer is yes. The caveat of trying to foresee future payoffs of technological restraint (a la technological forecasting) is sometimes difficult given the momentum of one’s workday. Summarily I have tried to limit my technological solution choices to a few in a field of innumerable possibilities. Such limitation is never an easy task, especially for one whose teaching and research is steeped in technological goodness; however, it is a key to my survival. Perhaps my limitation gives way to a sort of “technological Zen” or minimalism in an Internet-facilitated universe of unlimited possibilities. Perhaps also my limitation is a subtle application of the theory of appropriate technology. Regardless, employing a cost/benefit mindset to each technological choice, whether it results in technological restraint or not, is necessary to get through each day in an information saturated world. The necessity is even more urgent for one whose curiosity exponentially exceeds the number of hours in their day. [I am terminally curious.]

Mae West purportedly said “I like restraint, if it doesn’t go too far.” While the context of Ms. West’s comment may differ from mine, I think she was right as it might pertain to technology. On that sentiment, I am hereby restraining myself technologically so I can accomplish a few things.

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