Changeful Complexity

I’ve been reading the comments on Slaw about the distractions we all face at work from the intrusions of the internet and thinking back to discussions I’ve had about information overload. I still maintain that the amount of stimulus in the world remains constant at somewhere near infinity; but I’m forced to recognize that for many or most people something has changed and not for the better.

Part of what’s happened seems to be that internet stimuli are experienced as demands, whereas the simple razzle-dazzle of the world-as-it-is can be more easily left “out there” until we choose to go looking for it. (I won’t go into what must have happened to us such that we can ignore the siren calls of spring, for example, and carry on working as though it were 11 p.m. in winter; the fact is, we can.) Two things, at least, contribute to this felt urgency.

One is that there’s usually a human being at the other end of the internet stimulus, and I’d guess it’s fairly basic for us to feel pressure to respond to our kind. When the phone rings most folks move to answer it — which is why answering machines were such a blessing for some and anathema to others. Some of us are better able than others to ignore “demands” from other people; I’m not too bad at ignoring you when I want to, and I attribute that ability to the fact that I had five siblings and learned early to tune out others when needed. Whatever the dynamics, your ability to “concentrate” will make you more or less technology friendly, I suggest.

The other thing making life harder is that the layers of intrusion pile up: email does not replace the telephone, it is added to it (and to snail mail, let us not forget); RSS does not replace email, it is added to it. The same goes for instant messaging, the cell phone, text messaging and on and on. My hope is that this piling on will go away as technological convergence marries all these modes into one or two channels of intrusion. It may take a while, though: the last Western Union telegram was sent only this year. As well, as Steve Matthews has pointed out, coping strategies can help here, things such as weeding the impersonal messages out of your email or filtering your RSS.

But there’s another source of techno-distress, one that may weigh even more heavily on Slawyers, and that’s constant, complex change in the tools we use — or ought to use. I was reminded of this through a piece on Jensen Harris: An Office User Interface Blog, a site, as the name suggests, that discusses customization of Microsoft Office tools. (Jensen Harris is “a Lead Program Manager on the Microsoft Office ‘user experience’ team.”) Harris reports on a Microsoft study:

Looking across a hundred million or so people using Office 2003, here’s what we found:

* In fewer than 2% of sessions, the program was running with customized command bars.

* Of the 2% of sessions with customizations present, 85% included customization of four or fewer commands.

When I was for a time the “smiling face on technology” at Osgoode Hall Law School, I learned that most people learn one way of doing the absolute minimum necessary to produce the desired end result, and they stick with that way, resisting change with all the wiles of a passive aggressive. They still scroll down a window by feverishly click-click-clicking on the little down arrow instead of clicking in the empty space in the bar, no matter that you’ve shown them. They still use copy and paste from the menu, no matter that you’ve introduced them to Control-C and Control-V.

This law of parsimony of skill (or the “completeness of competence”) governs the lives of most of the people we work with: I can do it fine now, so why should I change? But technological change only introduces more complexity in most areas — that browser you’re using? change it for Firefox, with this extension and that extension and automatic note-takers that leap up when you right click just here on the little wedgie thing… Nope. Not happening. Just think of the people who asked for, and eventually got, email feeds of Slaw, because they didn’t want or couldn’t use RSS feeds — and this of a blog about technology.

So it’s not just that something is knocking on your door, interrupting you (it is, of course); neither is it just that what’s knocking is new (though it is); it’s that the new thing knocking wants you (and it does) to change your perfectly good way of doing things, the way that’s made you the success you are, thank-you-very-much. No wonder there’s a sense of invasion and disruption, of faint guilt and dissatisfaction, too, perhaps. “What? You haven’t even customized your Word toolbar?! How simply too, too 8-track of you!”


  1. I’m just reading a wonderful little book some of you may already have seen called McLuhan for Managers which addresses the challenge in McLuhanistic terms:

    “In a world of instantaneous communications and all-at-onceness, the most precious and valuable commodity to be sought is attention. Think about it: Every [sic] advertiser, every potential vendor and company desperately wants your attention and will go to great, and sometimes outrageous, lengths to obtain it. Hence, it may be said that the most valuable personal skill for an effective manager is ignorance, literally ignore-ance — the ability to selectively and appropriately ignore irrelevant figures scattered amongst the ground. In this context, ignorance is not bliss — it is the practical manifestation of acute awareness of heightened perception.” (page 36)

    Think of “figures” as all of those things striving for our attention, and “ground” as the background that is our office/work/jobs. The trick is only paying attention to those things that are important to what we are doing in our office/work/jobs and ignoring the rest.

    Now, I’m hoping this book later explains how to do this… heh!

    What gets my goat is when someone emails me and then calls me at the same time with the same message. But, riling me up in that way does get my attention and the person accomplishes what he/she (usually he, for some reason) sets out to do.

    Sometimes I set up “traps” for myself by asking people to call me and remind me of something if they haven’t heard from me by a certain day. That’s almost a guarantee that I will have responded by then because I have that potential future call at top of mind.