Information and the Quality of Life: Environmentalism for the Information Age (take 1)

David M. Levy (University of Washington) gave this closing keynote session for the conference. Levy began his talk by noting that many of us feel that life is out of balance somehow and that technology seems to have something to do with it. As we speed forward do we lose sight of the bigger picture?

Levy asks us: how can we recognize and establish balance? We have an abundance of information sources, devices and technologies. When does this abundance lead to overload? We have an abundance of attentional choices. When does this lead to fragmentation? We lead full lives with full schedules. When does this become “busyness”? We largely subscribe to rapid action and response. When is this speed counterproductive?

Some of the negative consequences of this speed up and overload: physical and mental health, productivity, effectiveness and quality of work, job satisfaction, decision-making, social cohesion and capital, democratic governance, and ethics. Some people can thrive on a 24/7 informational diet, but many cannot.

Levy quoted the well-known Vannevar Bush article in Atlantic Monthly in 1945, “As We May Think,” in which Bush conceptually proposes the basic tenets of hypertext and digital computing as a solution to the problem of information overload (he called his proposed device a “memex”). Levy notes that we have done all that Bush proposed and more, but this has not solved the information overload, but arguably worsened it.

Levy’s basic idea is that we spend a lot of time using technology to find, gather, and consume information, but we have lost sight of the need to slow down and process the information—a time to contemplate the world (the Greek ratio vs. intellectus). This was a nice way to end the conference—a helpful reminder to take a breath, slow down, and be calm.