Here are some tidbits I culled from news items both recent and not so recent:
- Only 14 percent of people turn off their cell phones during sex
- Wireless technology can accelerate teen dating abuse
- Many workers suffer from information fatigue syndrome leading to hypertension, heart disease, irritability, headaches, lack of concentration, anger and ennui
- An average of 22 stressors hit us each day, many in email form, repeatedly unleashing cortisol, a stress hormone, responsible for numerous stress-related diseases
Here’s another piece of news that’s a bit dated:
On Saturday, February 1, 2003, the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated nearly 40 miles above earth traveling at 18 times the speed of sound. Human remains were found in fields in Texas. There were no survivors. Human that is. Weeks later, hundreds of small worms that were part of an experiment did survive the crash and were found, again, somewhere in Texas in some canisters about the size of coffee cans. Curious.
I remember that day of the crash. I was watching in horror at the events. Weeks later, when I read about the worms, it became clear to me. Human beings are not designed to withstand Mach 18 at 200,000 feet in the air. Maybe worms are, but human beings definitely aren’t.
And one final tidbit to tie these two disparate set of facts together:
- More information has been produced in the last 30 years than in the previous 5,000
As I read about the worms, I thought about the amount of information flow hitting us daily. Are human beings designed to absorb this amount of information this quickly? Can we live successfully with the information equivalent of Mach 18, with cortisol raging, uncontrolled, through our veins?
Maybe. Maybe not. All depends on two paths we have available to us: a) designing computers to think on behalf of us, relieving us of the need to process so much so quickly; or b) designing computing devices that enhance our ability to absorb information by “calming” things down for us.
In a classic 1996 paper titled “The Coming Age of Calm Technology,” Marc Weiser and John Seely Brown discussed the impending age of the Internet and the growth of ubiquitous computing (UC). They wrote eloquently:
“The most potentially interesting, challenging, and profound change implied by the ubiquitous computing era is a focus on calm. If computers are everywhere they better stay out of the way, and that means designing them so that the people being shared by the computers remain serene and in control. Calmness is a new challenge that UC brings to computing.”
None less than Stalin observed that quantity has a quality all its own. With that in mind, I have following questions:
- Does the sheer amount of information our systems spew forth render useless any calming effects that even the best UC designs offer?
- Did everyone who designed these darned things and the information they spit up forget all about the concept of calmness?
- Is this disquieting information flow responsible for the life-style ills found in people in developed countries?
- Longer term, are we multi-tasking ourselves into oblivion? Don’t we need relatively stress-free IT workers to invent those computers that Raymond Kurzweil believes can save us?
- How much faster are we capable of going?
I don’t have time to deal with these questions. I’ll leave it to you. My Blackberry is buzzing and I gotta go. TTFN.
Vince Kellen is Vice President for Information Services (CIO) at DePaul University and a member of the faculty for DePaul’s computer science graduate program.