If you are reading this, then you are probably aware of the growing challenge that we all face of information overload. Even if you don't suffer (as I do) from the medical version of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), a global level of ADD seems to be affecting us all, because we simply have too many things to pay attention to.
The Internet has helped us to discover that the more you learn, the more you find things that you don't know, but are interested in. On a daily basis, we are discovering more people, places, things, topics, professions, gadgets, and problems through more avenues than ever before.
How many times do you find yourself asking "How did I get here?" after following some thread of interesting and related web links? How often do you ask a similar question in a conversation with a colleague or friend? At least for me, this opportunity for overload on the Internet is one of those love/hate relationships...yet I want more!
BUT I also want to do more RELEVANT finding and learning. Now, I don't want anyone or anything to MAKE the decisions for me, but I'm desperately seeking assistance in making more decisions, faster and better. In other words, I'm looking for "decision support" that is designed to match the exponential increase of learning and information out there.
This is hardly a trivial problem, nor is it one I suspect we'll have mastered anytime soon, but what I'm finding is that there is an increasing amount of decision support available. So I wanted to bring two kinds to your attention today (if you've got the time and attention?!).
I like to think of information as "that which informs". It is a simple yet profound perspective that I've found extremely helpful. Claude Shannon, often referred to as "the father of information theory", put it best when he said "information causes change; if it doesn't it isn't information" For me, information can take almost any form—text, people, drawings, graphics, machines—literally anything I can sense, I suppose. And it is only information if it is new to me, which could mean it is something I've seen before, something that itself might be very old, but is now in a new context, or now I'm able to understand it or see it in a new light. In other words, information is something relevant to what I'm thinking about or working on at the time.
You can see how this is topic is such an important part of my focus on mass personalization, the Snowflake Effect, and getting everything "just right" as in just the right information to just the right person(s) at just the right time in just the right way, etc.
Because if what IS information is all so personal and contextual, then information filtering is itself a tricky business. We only want to filter out the irrelevant stuff, yet that saying about "one person's garbage is another person's treasure" certainly applies to information and ideas. But I worry that serendipitous discoveries of great things will get lost in these information filters.
Therefore, I think that we humans will be a significant part of the process of successful information filtering, and at least right now, what we need is that decision support layer between us, along with the delightful deluge of choices. We need something to act as our personal agent to bring us more things which have a high probability of being relevant, while providing some tools and techniques that help us make better decisions faster.
Some of the best information filtering today seems to work very informally or indirectly. I've heard this referred to as "ambient information" by some and I think it's a good description. Ambient information is aimed at reducing data overload. It acts as a "decision support device" by moving the information into the world around us. It is a bit like staring up at the night sky and discovering that you can see clusters of stars best when you don't look at them directly but rather, off to one side. Here are two examples of what I'm referring to as informal information filtering and ambient information:
PARTiCLS: Paying Attention to Personalized Aggregation
PARTiCLS is a web-based RSS application that appears on your desktop as a constantly scrolling set of headlines for you to consider. It's a bit like a scrolling stock ticker. Developed by the Australia-based startup behind APML, its co-founder Chris Saad described PARTiCLS as "an attention management engine for busy people who deal with a constant stream of incoming information." "Particls to take RSS Mainstream" by StartupSquad provides a more detailed review. I've been experimenting with a "pre-beta" version for the past few months and now it is available as a public beta (fascinating how the whole beta phenomena has evolved, isn't it?).
PARTiCLS is also a good example to me of the maturing of RSS. In particular, it provides a very "Grandma-friendly" interface (this is a reference to my recent "Going after Grandma" post). While RSS is popular with some audiences, it has not been at all friendly to the true masses, who have been slow to use it. Nor has RSS even begun to reach its potential. I'm convinced that RSS will continue to grow and evolve in importance, and applications such as PARTiCLS will help it to make inroads with the masses. It's worth a look.
I'm recommending that you try "learning by doing" with PARTiCLS is so you can experience a form of informal information filtering that I referenced at the outset of this post. To get started with PARTiCLS, you can simply enter any number of words, in any order. No syntax, no forms, just stream of consciousness; whatever comes to your mind at the time. The entry box is available at any time. It lets you see what your terms are, and you can add or delete them as your interests change.
What I was REALLY hoping to see in future releases of PARTiCLS is the ability to monitor my "attention" and then for it to either start automatically adding appropriate terms to my list or recommending ones for me to add. I'm delighted to see that they have started down this path with "Auto-detected interest" and "Auto subscribe" features that scan your browsing history and detect some of your attention data, and then automatically subscribe you to new sites that you are visiting regularly.
Something else that really sets PARTiCLS apart from other RSS readers and applications is its ability to sort out how important new information is to you and then use proportionally different means to alert you to it. For example, general information might be displayed on the news ticker that I mentioned earlier, whereas more important items might appear as a popup alert, and urgent information might be sent via SMS to your phone. PARTiCLS has also just added a new "inTouch" option that enables you to embed a PARTiCLS link on your web site or blog. When readers click on it, they can automatically use PARTiCLS to monitor topics that you cover.
I recommend that you take it out for a test drive, and let me know what your experience is like when you do. Does it have the right balance between being a form of "ambient information" or is it too distracting? How well does it help you sort out the important and relevant stuff for you?
Even more indirect, informal, and perhaps effective are some emerging "ambient information devices" such as the Ambient Orb pictured here, as well as an ambient umbrella that glows when rain is likely to occur. Ambient Devices (the company) positions this as being the best of both worlds of "push" and "pull" types of information distribution. In their article about the orb device, the New York Times said :
"This is ambient information''—the newest concept in how to monitor everyday data. We've been cramming stock tips, horoscopes and news items onto our computers and cell phones—forcing us to peer constantly at little screens. What if we've been precisely wrong?"
Since their introduction, some of which were dismissed as "just a fad", there have been some very successful and "serious" implementations. For example in the recent (Aug/07) Wired magazine article "Psst! You're Wasting Electricity", reporter Clive Thompson thinks that "the desktop orb could reform energy hogs". His article cited the growing use of orbs or other forms of ambient information by power companies to help customers reduce their bills and their energy consumption. For example, Southern California Edison power company got its customers to reduce energy use by 40 percent. This was also after several very unsuccessful attempts using automated phone calls, text messages, and emails.
With this success, I noticed that Ambient Devices is now selling this "Energy Joule" device that plugs into any wall socket and provides up-to-date readouts of the cost of the energy you are currently consuming.
But it is this success at changing behaviors that I found to be most interesting and promising here. It fits very nicely with my previous notions of "decision support", since these devices are helping to manage the information overload and helping us make better decisions.
You may have experienced another form of this if you have ever driven a vehicle with some a real-time fuel consumption readouts on the dashboard. Even better might be one that added the current cost of the fuel and read out in units that we all seem to understand very well and react to—money!
Thompson goes on to suggest:
"Maybe the real killer app for ambient information isn't alleviating data overload or tracking investments. Maybe it's taming global warming. To improve energy efficiency and reduce emissions, we first need to make omnipresent the hidden facts about our usage—paint them on the world around us."
Sounds a lot more effective and immediate that many of the other ideas out there and it is one that I could see actually changing behaviors and trends.
Already one company, DIY Kyoto has a device called Wattson that both monitors your energy consumption AND sends the data to a web site so you can compare your usage with others worldwide. As Thompson astutely notes in his Wired article:
"The hope is that it could spawn a cascade of conservations. It's fun seeing your personal energy tab go down by kilowatts but just imagine watching the world's usage plunge by terawatts or petawatts. Now that's fun."
For whatever purpose you might have, I'd strongly encourage you to do some experiential learning with these new forms of information filtering and decision support. I'd love to hear about your use of these models and how successful or not they are at changing behaviors and improving decisions.
In future posts, I'm going to pick up on this idea of using fun for serious purposes, while it seems to produce important results. Stay tuned.