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.

2 thoughts on “Information and the Quality of Life: Environmentalism for the Information Age (take 1)

  1. OK, I was the one in the back who raised her hand when the speaker asked, “Who here has enough leisure time?”

    Interestingly, later in the hotel lobby when I was checking out, Pat Mullin walked by and identified me to his companions, “This is the one who admitted she had too much leisure time.” Hmm. When is “enough” leisure time “too much” leisure time?

    Once I showed a colleague an amusing animation I’d done. “Some people have too much time on their hands!” she responded. So, what does that say about Disney or Pixar? Is this an entire company with too much time on its hands? Do the people at Pixar actually work?

    Back when I was a sociology major, one of the required readings was The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. The first thing that pops into my mind when someone says something like “Some people have too much time on their hands” is, “there’s a Calvinist.” But I see this same work-centric ethos among Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, people from Eastern religious traditions with which I’m unfamiliar, and utter agnostics/atheists.

    There is a concept out there that you must suffer, or it’s not work. Well, to be honest, you must be willing to put up with the tedious and suffering parts, because that’s why they call it work. But if you find a job that is intrinsically fun, most of it is really not work. It is play.

    It’s precisely the people attending LITA Forum who ought to be able to say of their work, it is play. I get fun out of tweaking this technology. Most of the people I’ve ever known who do good work in technology get huge fun out of it. We are so lucky to be able to play at our jobs.

    So, back to Pixar: Does anyone there actually work? Hmm. We suspect them of having much more fun than we are. It must not really be work. And yet they are producing (very likely on time and on budget) enormously profitable stuff. Perhaps they are so productive because they are doing work that is fun.

    Levy touched briefly on the concept of Mindful Work, which as he said, sounds a tad flaky, but actually isn’t. When you go to search Amazon for this, though, don’t search Mindful Work: instead search Skillful Means. This will get you to the texts that actually describe being there in your work. At least that’s what the writeups say. I haven’t read them yet, myself, but they look encouraging.

    How do you have “enough” leisure? I don’t know how you do it, but here’s how I do it.

    1. Learn to say No. You don’t have time to do everything that’s slightly important. I used to volunteer at the local theater company, web developers’ group, and merchant association. Then I went from working out of my home to commuting to a job. I no longer had time to do all this. Those organizations will live on fine without you. Better to commit only to what you can really do, and drop the rest of the commitments.

    2. Make a daily and a weekly space for silence and solitude. I set my alarm for hours before I have to be at work because I need to start every day with quiet time listening to the birds in the trees, admiring the sky, petting the cat, playing games or reading. Likewise, each weekend I usually have at least half a day with no commitments and no productivity whatsoever. Staring into space time.

    3. Choose your job. There is so much I could say about this: getting enough education to be able to select a job you want. Choosing whether your job is your children, your partner, your paid work. At any given time, what is your job? For me, when I’m at the paid job, I’m absorbed in that, and it’s hard to remember to call the auto shop back when they have my truck there. You may be better than I at multitasking, and thus able to remember to call the auto shop, but does your job absorb your interest? If you had to choose, would you choose your job? If not, why aren’t you making your job a job you would choose? Should you quit, move on, and leave it to someone who would choose your job? OK, the main thing to remember about choosing your work is, don’t bother listening to people who tell you it isn’t work (and therefore not valid). Remember Pixar.

    4. Plan fun. Often.

    5. Go be weird yourself or vicariously. Play practical jokes. Go to art galleries showing local artists and read the artists’ statements. Imagine thinking from that mindspace. Listen to annoying music. Be annoyed. Find out how far you can stretch your definition of OK until art or music annoys you,

    In this latter vein, I was HIGHLY annoyed at the Terry Winters work at the San Jose Museum of Art which I visited on my way back home. But I was extremely impressed with the Brides of Frankenstein exhibit, Later this month, open studios will be popping out all over the county and I look forward to seeing something new and disturbing.

    Life is too short to miss all this. Life is far, far, far too painfully long to have to go through if you miss all this.

    And yes, I’m choosing to spend midnight finishing up this comment and strangely, it doesn’t make me feel at all overworked!

  2. […] Scrolling Forward, by David Levy ( 1 )   ( 2 ) As David Levy notes in Scrolling Forward, to understand documents, you must carefully examine representative documents, even mundane ones.  Parts of this federal document (table of contents info only) might seem silly, but as a U.S. Congressional hearing document, it will undoubtedly be available to and used by researchers hundreds of years in the future. ( 3 ) ( 4 ) ( 5 ) I found David Levy’s Scrolling Forward: Making Sense of Documents in the Digital Age a challenging, but rewarding, book to read.  His detailed review of the history and evolution of Leaves of Grass emphasized to me that  the divide between book and digital technologies isn’t as sharp as is often depicted.  Levy has a background in computer science and is a Professor at the University of Washington’s Information School and, as a librarian, I was particularly interested in his view on the role of libraries in managing digital documents.  Having attended the Texas digital library conferences in the mid-1990s, I was aware of Levy’s research into library cataloging.  He provides a detailed review of library history, focusing on the impact of Melvil Dewey’s work.  While he appreciates the role that libraries have played in the past ("libraries have been in the business of collecting, organizing, preserving, and provdiing access to documents for thousands of years"), Levy notes that the development of digital technologies means that "new methods of organization will be needed."  The chapter "Libraries and the Anxiety of Order" underscores the challenge that library organizations face in providing services during such rapid technological change.  Services traditionally provided  – book delivery (union catalog based at the WSU Libraries), access to documents in print and microformat, reference and instructional services – must remain in place as the service base.  At the same time, newer services – institutional repositories, digital reference services – must be developed to support  user expectations and needs.  ( 6 ) Scrolling Forward was published in 2001.  I’d be very interested to read Levy’s updated views on digital documents management.  He makes a reference to e-books (page 117); development with e-paper technologies could dramatically impact the document issues discussed in this book.  Additionally, since the book’s release, numerous academic organizations have joined with their campus colleagues in attempting to develop durable digital repository systems.  This effort provides at least a subset of the organization and preservation services needed for digital documents.  ( 7 ) I was inspired to read Scrolling Forward after hearing David Levy speak last month in San José as the LITA Forum’s closing speaker.  Certainly, he has a sound view of the application of technologies across the board.  He compares digital technologies with existing information technologies – postcards, greeting cards – and considers the attributes and drawbacks of each.  Likewise, the need to properly use – and not abuse – technologies comes through in the book.  (As an example, I’m sitting in my office on December 1 in front of my work computer, editing this review.  I’m on page 154 of the book, which is open on my lap, as I try to finish a chapter in the next few minutes.  My computer is running a number of applications:  my blog software, e-mail, scheduler, and a web-based site that offers books and courses on SharePoint Services.  My door is one-quarter open and the white noise server hum is clearly audible in the background.)  In a world where it’s hard to escape modern communication technologies, Levy emphasizes the importance of managing "one of our most precious resources: our attention" (page 102).       ( 8 ) The last two chapters, "The Search for Stable Ground" and "Scrolling Forward" are perhaps the most interesting of the book.  They emphasize the proper use of technology, the dominant theme in Levy’s spoken remarks that I mentioned earlier.  I read these chapters on a Monday.  Late the following day, I completed a requested excercise:  to write up and distribute to my colleagues (via e-mail) a "What I do" document that described my previous week’s work, with the goal of improving communication in the workplace.  I outlined the document at home on Monday, then worked on it for a few minutes here and there throughout the day on Tuesday.  Upon completion, I was surprised at the number of different technologies, institutions, and individuals that I dealt with during this single sample week.  If you want some insights into the frenzied 21st century workplace, these chapters are excellent.  ( 9 ) Scrolling Forward  lacks an index, but I found this to be (by using the notes in the back) a minor problem.  I highly recommend Scrolling Forward to any librarian, period, but particularly to librarians working in automation services.    ( 10 ) […]

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