Monday, April 25

Information Overload

Knowing When to Log Off

Wired campuses may be causing 'information overload'

David M. Levy, a computer scientist who loves technology and gets more than 100 e-mail messages a day, makes a point of unplugging from the Internet one day each week to clear his head. Even so, with all the e-mail messages flooding in, with academic blogs bursting with continuous debate, and with the hectic pace set by an increasingly wired world, Mr. Levy says he cannot help but feel an occasional sense of information overload.

And that, he says, is something to stop and think about.

Mr. Levy, a professor at the University of Washington's Information School, is one of many scholars trying to raise awareness of the negative impact of communication technologies on people's lives and work. They say the quality of research and teaching at colleges is at risk unless scholars develop strategies for better managing information, and for making time for extensive reading and contemplation.

"We're losing touch with the contemplative roots of scholarship, the reflective dimension," says Mr. Levy. "When you think that universities are meant to be in effect the think tanks for the culture, or at least one of the major forms of thinking, that strikes me as a very serious concern."

At Washington, Mr. Levy is working to create a laboratory to explore those issues, to be called the Center for Information and the Quality of Life. He received a $25,000 grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to help plan the center, though he is still looking for support for its operation.

He and other scholars have already started a dialogue on the topic. Last year Mr. Levy organized a conference at the university called "Information, Silence, and Sanctuary" that brought together artists, philosophers, sociologists, and others, and was supported by the university and by grants from MacArthur and the National Science Foundation.

Mr. Levy hopes the conversations will grow into a new kind of movement focused on people's informational environments and on reducing data smog.

Scholars are beginning to realize "that our information ecology is endangered as well," says Mr. Levy. "We're just at the very beginning of even being clear about the nature of what the problems are."

'Not Anti-E-Mail'

Colleges were early in embracing the Internet and other communication technologies, and campuses remain some of the most wired environments anywhere. Although many professors say the Internet has enhanced their teaching and scholarship -- by better connecting them with colleagues around the world, by providing easier access to research materials, and by increasing contact with students -- it has also brought new challenges, such as keeping online tasks from becoming unwieldy.

"When I sit down at a conference or lunch with a colleague, there's a pretty good chance we'll talk about being overwhelmed by e-mail and what we're doing about it," says Buzz Alexander, an English professor at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. "I'm not anti-e-mail. I'm advantaged and disadvantaged by e-mail like everybody else."

On the syllabus for his course "What Is Literature?" he tells students not to contact him by e-mail. He says he tries to make sure he is available for one-on-one meetings to respond to any questions -- after class, during his office hours, or over coffee. "If they're in my office," he says, "I can say to them, 'How are you liking the course?' or 'How are things going?'" And he worries that he would not be able to keep up with a flood of e-mail questions from students who expect an instant response.

Bill McKibben, a scholar in residence in environmental studies at Middlebury College, says the issue is more than just one of time management.

"There's the real danger that one is absorbing and responding to bursts of information, rather than having time to think," says Mr. McKibben, author of Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age (Times Books, 2003). "What's only gradually becoming clear is not just a pragmatic drawback but an intellectual drawback to having so many trees that there's no possibility of seeing the forest."

He says he is not immune from feelings of information overload, and that he has tried to work out strategies for dealing with the flood of communication he gets each day. When he is working on a book or is near a deadline, for instance, he only checks his e-mail messages once a day, in the evening. And he uses a slow dial-up connection at home, even though he could afford a faster broadband service, so that he is less tempted to surf the Web.

"I think part of it is that my mind, and perhaps human minds in general, are geared toward novelty, and so it's difficult to discipline yourself to disregard each new incoming e-mail and each new incoming thing that you can instantly track down and print out," he says.

Some scholars worry that even tools meant to help home in on specific information could have a negative impact on research.

For instance, Michael Gorman, president-elect of the American Library Association and dean of library services at California State University at Fresno, wants to make sure students and professors do not become so enthralled with Google, which plans to scan millions of books and add them to its popular search engine, that they stop reading books the old-fashioned way.

"We all know that, in Googleworld, speed is of the essence, but it is not to most scholarly research in the real world," Mr. Gorman wrote in a recent editorial in the Los Angeles Times. "Massive databases of digitized whole books, especially scholarly books, are expensive exercises in futility based on the staggering notion that, for the first time in history, one form of communication (electronic) will supplant and obliterate all previous forms."

In an interview, Mr. Gorman stressed that he is not against technology, and that he is a strong supporter of digital-library projects for special collections and rare materials. "I'm all in favor of technology being used wisely," he said. "My basic point is the best thing to do with a scholarly book is to sit and read it," rather than skim an excerpt that is revealed by a search engine. "A book is not just an accumulation of facts, it's an argument, a cumulative piece of knowledge, and is designed to be read sequentially."

Stopping to Think

Since students are generally even more wired than professors, some college officials think students should be encouraged to take some time away from computers, cellphones, and other communication devices.

"The amount of information that goes into a young person's head today is incredible," says David H. Landers, director of the student resource center at Saint Michael's College, in Colchester, Vt. His main concern is that students have replaced face-to-face contact with instant messaging and e-mail. "They're not going to have the same quality of interpersonal relations that will help them in a work environment," he argues.

He says colleges should encourage students to get involved in community projects where they see what life is like outside of their high-tech campus bubble. "We recognize technology," he says, "but we can't become slaves to it."

David Rothenberg, a professor of philosophy at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, took a novel approach to fighting overload in a class he taught called "Technology and Contemplation." He used a few minutes of each class session to have students meditate.

"If you stop talking and have people sit silently for five minutes, that's a good use of time because people are so stressed out," he says. "It really had a positive effect." He says he is no expert on meditation, and that the bulk of the class dealt with texts that looked at the differences and similarities between technical thinking and contemplative thinking. He tried the techniques with the support of a small grant from the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, a secular nonprofit group.

Mr. Levy says his weekly day off from technology is part of his observation of the Jewish Sabbath (his wife is a rabbi), but that he recommends time away from computer monitors as a practice in itself. "I'm not suggesting that anyone else be Jewish," he says, "but rather if you think about the idea of the Sabbath, which is a time apart, a time to cultivate different qualities, that seems like a very important idea for our culture."

He says information overload is one aspect of a larger problem that includes "fragmented attention, busyness, and the speed-up of daily life."

"It isn't just the amount of information," he argues. "It's the expectation that we're going to go faster and faster and faster."

Arthur G. Zajonc, a physics professor at Amherst College who is also director of the academic program for the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, says many people take pride in replying to e-mail messages instantly, leading them to dash off terse, often uncivil, responses. He says he makes it a point to pause and rethink his outgoing e-mail messages for 30 seconds before sending them, to make sure he hasn't been overly curt. "Everything is so fast and also a little bit anonymous" with e-mail, he says. "So you have to pause to reflect on who this person is" that will be reading the message and how they might perceive it.

Broader Issues

Academics are not the only ones feeling overwhelmed, of course, and a growing number of researchers are looking at technology's impacts on the quality of life outside of colleges.

Norman H. Nie, director of the Stanford Institute for the Quantitative Study of Society, at Stanford University, found in a recent survey that Internet use tends to cut into family time, and can lead to feelings of isolation. For the average respondent, an hour on the Internet reduced face-to-face time with family by 23.5 minutes per day, he says.

"It's not whether to use the Internet or not use the Internet," said Mr. Nie in an interview. "It's how much time we really spend on it. Time is a hydraulic system. If you spend two hours doing one thing, you can't spend it doing something else."

Mr. Nie admits to a fair amount of Internet use himself, and says he feels it has changed his habits, perhaps cutting into some leisure time.

Eric Brende became so fed up with technology that he quit his graduate studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology a few years ago to spend 18 months living with his wife in a rural farming community. (He wouldn't say where exactly to protect the identities of the people he wrote about.) He argues that the negative aspects of using technology have become so great that we would all be better off giving up nearly all modern devices -- including washing machines, lawn mowers, and cars. He published a book about his experiences and beliefs, called Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology (HarperCollins, 2004).

He argues that living more simply actually yields more leisure time, and forces people to forge greater bonds with neighbors because of a greater need for cooperation (such as for the occasional barn raising). And he notes that not enough people are looking critically at the impact of technology. "Whatever impact it's having," he says, "people are overlooking the negative aspects of it, one of which is, I think, a loss of a sense of leisure and contemplation."

Mr. Brende, who now lives in St. Louis, has not completely switched off technology, though. He said in an interview that he occasionally checks e-mail messages at a nearby public library, and that he even has a cellphone, which helps him coordinate his work as a part-time bicycle-rickshaw driver. "You're not being disloyal to progress," he said, "by picking and choosing the kind of technology that best fits your needs."