Saturday, May 2, 2009

Information Overload

I've been traveling a bit lately. On vacation in Newport Beach, without a computer. In Las Vegas for some meetings (really)and no time to read Twitter, or Facebook, or even my new Kindle2. Yes, I checked them a few times on my Gphone, but it's not worth the wait, usually.

So what did I miss? What happens if one misses all those tweets, those banal talking points on cable news shows, the posting of countless new photos?

When I used to work full time, and I'd leave on vacation, I'd stay until midnight the night before I left to empty my "in box," page through all those magazines and memos and spreadsheets. I would go through them (many that had been sitting there for weeks) and feel like I was leaving a clean desk. When I'd return two weeks later, the desk would be piled high with newspapers, magazines, reports. The email "in box" would be overloaded. And I'd start to wade through much of it, but never get very far.

That's OK, for a vacation. But how do you filter through all the excessive information we now have. Where are those old curmudgeonly filters, newspaper and magazine editors?

The amount of information we have at our fingertips is just too much. Way too much. If we miss a day, we can't come back and read the inbox, we can't catch up, or at least it feels that way.

Commentator and former newspaper reporter John Reinan captured the point:

"The volume of information is growing beyond our ability to process it.

All of the recent advances in information technology, it seems to me, have been aimed at increasing the amount of information available to us. I think we're reaching the point when we need some technology that helps us filter, sort and make sense of the river of data that we swim in every day.

There used to be something like that. It was called a newspaper.

I have, with great sadness, accepted the idea that newspapers as we've known them may not be with us much longer. I'd love to be proven wrong.

But I believe people still want what newspapers have provided: a sense of being presented with important, useful and enjoyable information, culled from many sources and thoughtfully organized.

Like Clay Shirky, I don't know what online form that might take. And given the economics of the Web, it may be that nobody can make a living producing it.

As is so often the case in a revolution, the only thing certain is that nothing is certain.

We now have all kinds of new filters on the web, Amazon tells us what books we might like, Netflix tells us what movies to watch, Twitter links to stories read by others whom we respect. And some of those enterprises have even figured out how to make a lot of money helping us decide.

But there are still days when I yearn for a big pile of paper on my desk.

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