Personal Computing July 1989
“I know I asked for ice, but this is ridiculous.” Legend has it that John Astor uttered this quip while sitting in the bar of the SS Titanic, but he could as easily have been hunched in front of a computer screen. The problem is that we are awash in information. It seeps in through phone lines and floods in through the mail slot, collecting into into pools of unopened mail, unread copies, stacks of videos, and gigabytes of unexamined data. We have made information the currency of business in an information age, and now we are in danger of drowning.
Our new computer tools were supposed help us manage the flood, but they have merely increased information velocity and volume. The headaches of junkmail fibercrud pale beside the anxieties triggered by vivid multimedia cybercrud served up on optical disks and communication links. “Information overload” has become a fixture on the business landscape — and just another subject we are being overloaded with information about. My bookshelf is stacked with several books offering overload cures, I can’t find the time to skim, much less read them.
Still, I am an optimist when it comes to the future. If information is a wave about to engulf us, the solution is to become “information surfers” — individuals who thrive in a world of hyperabundant information. We are in a pickle today because we are trying to manage 21st century information overload with 19th century intellectual skills. For example, we still prize the ability to recall specific information over the skill of making connections among seemingly unrelated information. We have become a society of specialists, each knowing more and more about less and less.
An information surfing future will be one of generalists capable of teasing knowledge and understanding out of large information flows. Information surfers will be pattern finders applying new intellectual skills and working in close concert with radically more powerful information tools. Specialists won’t be totally obsolete, but the nature of their work will also change radically.
As exotic as information surfing sounds, it is not without precedent. Our culture has faced information overload on other occasions, and each time the invention of new information tools has in turn triggered new intellectual skills. The emergence of a print culture soon after 1500 is but the most famous example in an intellectual history spanning several millenia. In the mid-1400s, memory was prized as the scholar’s most important intellectual tool, and literacy was but an exotic and secondary skill. But within a century of Gutenberg’s invention, literacy synonymous with scholarship, and the formal arts of memory began a long slide into obscurity. This represented nothing less than a shift from the use of the brain as storage to the brain as a processor of print-based information.
The interaction of burgeoning information, new tools and intellectual skills also leads to new business niches. The popularization of double entry book-keeping by a Franciscan monk was the technology edge that allowed Fifteenth century Florentine merchant families to build their Renaissance financial empires. The use of computerized trading systems to manage huge portfolios spread across world-wide markets may become the platform for information surfers to explore entirely new opportunities today. The 21st century equivalent of double-entry book-keeping could be chaos theory — a new branch of mathematics that allows identification of meaningful patterns in seemingly incomprehensible, hopelessly complex and chaotic data.
The intersection of tool and skill can also change the very fabric of society. Capitalism was impossible before the existence of a large population of numerate merchants. And the growth of that population in Europe can be traced back to the publication in 1478 of the first manual of practical commercial arithmetic. Perhaps the diffusion of software that models the power and elegance of the new sciences of complexity such as chaos theory will will lead to similar social surprises in the decades ahead.
New information technologies can foster revolutions, and not the kind that Apple likes to announce from time to time. Capitalistic excesses by a papal representative led Martin Luther to tack his complaints to a church door in 1517. And the printing press made it possible to spread his message across Europe, transforming Luther’s argument with the local bishopric into the Protestant Reformation. VCRs are a tool of revolution in Poland today, and the Ayatollah engineered the Shah’s fall with audiocassettes smuggled into Iran. We can only guess when the computer itself will join these technologies as a medium of radical social change.
Ultimately, the greatest effect of the intersection of information, tool and skill is on the nature and volume of information itself. The advent of printing arguably occurred in response to the information pressures of the Renaissance, and the publishing industry it spawned led to an utterly unprecedented information explosion in the 1500s. A beleaguered Venetian businessman of the time would empathize with our information overload headaches today. His sympathies should remind us that events in our corner of the 20th century are but a small part of a much larger and longer information revolution.
The experience of earlier revolutions should also remind us that a world habitable by information surfers will not emerge overnight. I am sure that more than a few medieval scribes developed a literacy itch long before the books existed to satisfy it. Similarly, many knowledge workers today exhibit information surfing instincts, but have nothing to surf with. One sign of this instinct is the apparent rise in the number of aliterates — individuals who can read, but choose not to.
Educators are troubled by this rise, but I wonder whether the alliteracy trend merely reflects a rational choice by users among the broad media offerings available today. We lament the apparent passivity of our “television society”, yet the same couch potatoes who watch shows like Dallas also purchase VCRs, Nintendo games and even personal computers. TV watchers are passive only because the medium allows for no other response, and the idle channel-changing we all engage in could be the sign of slumbering information surfing instincts.
It is possible to find a few would-be information surfers waiting impatiently for the wave to roll in. Users of online information services are likely candidates along with hypermedia fans, and CD-Rom purchasers. The problem is that information services remain slow and primitive, hypermedia is just getting started and CD-Rom remains a maddeningly awkward technology.
Still, information surfing instincts can have practical value even before an appropriate infrastructure arrives. Just as Exxon’s sluggish bureaucracy was outrun by a creeping oil slick, many corporations are learning that traditional management structures simply cannot cope with events in todays information overloaded, interrupt driven world. Economist Peter Drucker suggests that the result may be an entirely new form of organization which is information-based and organized around supporting small high-performance teams of knowledge professionals. Information surfing organizations are more likely to resemble symphony orchestras than General Motors.
The earliest business opportunities to emerge may be those that serve the information surfers themselves. DowQuest from Dow-Jones may be the first example. Built around two connection machines and a nationwide T1 telecommunications network, DowQuest is capable of “information broadcasting” — piping high volumes of information into a user’s site in real time. It is an information firehose in a world of of on-line drinking straws. The only hitch is that the user has to figure out how to handle the information once it is delivered. This will take some time to work out, but it is easy to imagine a world in which the incoming datastream is monitored by corporate “infobots” which analyze content, make connections and distribute information and secondary judgments over an internal corporate network to human information surfers. Even more traditional information services are likely to follow this lead, offering users information feeds into entirely new kinds of computer-based personal information management tools.
Information surfing may become a reality first in the financial world. Indeed, portions of the global financial marketplace already are inhabited by information surfers trading electronically across multiple time zones. The bulk of our money supply is represented not by cash in vaults, but electrons tunneling down wires and bouncing off satellites. Just as coin was once a symbol for the goods it could purchase, phosphor dots and vague clouds of computer memory have become symbols for currency never printed. Several futures trading exchanges have announced plans to eliminate face-to-face trading in the “futures pits” entirely in favor of computerized transactions. Instead of shouting at each other, traders will sit at terminals. Once traders begin to rely on computers to execute trades, they inevitably will explore what other roles the computer can play as an assistant performing research and alerting its human boss of relevant external events. Many traders are unnerved by this prospect, but those with information surfing instincts may discover that the experience is like being able to play at a chess match with a computer assistant at one’s side.
The nature of office space is also certain to change as we enter an information surfing world. Office buildings today amount to information “watering holes” — locations where information is concentrated along with tools such as computers and copiers required to process it. The increasing accessibility of information in electronic form is already encouraging greater levels of telecommuting activity. Physical offices will not become obsolete, but their purpose is certain to shift in favor of uses that have little to do with information pooling needs. Imagine going to an office to socialize with one’s colleagues.
Each successive information innovation has yielded a fresh source of information anxiety. No matter how quickly information surfing becomes a reality, we are certain to remain one step behind our burgeoning information flows. But this may be the least of our worries. The ultimate information anxiety will stem from the discovery that our new tools have not only created more information than ever, but have made it autonomous as well. Imagine a world where our information systems are so busy conversing with each other that the information surfers are unable to break into the conversation. The havoc wreaked by computerized trading programs during the 1987 stock market crash may give us a hint of what such a future might be like. It is enough to make even John Astor think twice before asking for another drink.
*When I submitted this column, I thought I had discovered an obscure new term, “information surfing”. Some years later, I happened across a passage by Marshall McLuhan in which he spoke of surfing data “like Duke Kahanamoku on a surfboard.” Nothing, it seems, is ever new! (1999)