Too Little Information

As I’ve said many times before, trends tend to bend. Counter-forces and negative feedback loops tend to build up and send things off in a direction that’s opposite to the one most people expect. Case in point – too little information. Everyone, more or less, knows about Too Much Information (TMI), but much of this ‘information’ is shallow, trivial and meaningless. (See ‘Filter Failure’ – Sharkey 2009). But, more importantly, because people are starting to feel that nothing that’s digital is ever totally secure they’re starting to get very cautious and not to write things down. The result might well be that very important documentation is ceasing to exist. Think about political decisions taken during periods of crisis. Historically you’d have diaries, minutes of meetings and so on. But what if we don’t? What if the real issue isn’t Too Much Information (TMI) but Too Little Information (TLI)?

An idea proposed by the Canadian historian Professor Margaret MacMillan.

Listen here (around 20 minutes 40 seconds in).

Digital Trust

Michael Wolf, writing in USA Today a few years ago, said that trust could be the next big thing. The theory goes that trust used to be what most individuals and institutions were selling. Trust was built up, consistently, over many years and once acquired, you had the ultimate scalable asset on your hands. Brands, in particular, traded upon this inteangible asset.

Nowadays most major brands have the opposite problem and so do many of our institutions. Nobody trusts them any longer. This is true of the entire financial services industry, all but a handful of politicians, most journalists, the police, the church, a number of scientists and just about any global multinational you care to mention. This lack of trust also applies to the global branding industry, which tries its best to create the illusion of trust for others, but most people don’t trust them either.

In theory, the internet should be able to solve this problem. Millions of online voices rate their satisfaction with just about everything that matters. But, as we saw with Amazon a while back, user reviews can be untrustworthy too. Many are written anonymously, sometimes by someone related to someone trying to sell something, and even when not there’s a tendency to write negative comments more than positive ones. Fake News and the recent Facebook debarkle haven’t helped much either.

So what’s to be done? On one hand it’s a serious crisis of confidence in both capitalism and democracy. On the other hand, perhaps we are missing the power of feedback loops and cycles. If and when something tips too far in one direction, this creates an opportunity for someone, or something, to move off in the other direction.

Perhaps someone will eventually devise a way of getting everyone on the planet to rate everything – a global reputation index if you like. If someone refuses to take part this will indicate they have something serious to hide. But surely this is a new form of sanctimonious conformity? No. What we need here is not more information, but less. Information is the problem, not the solution. There is too much of it to analyse properly and we no longer trust anyone to filter or analyse anything for us.

Information etiquette

From John Perry Barlow, “Digerati: Encounters with the Cyber Elite” 1996

“Things of an informational nature, should be regarded as are love or friendship. You would never claim to own your friendships. You would never regard them as property. An ideal information exchange is more like friendship than it is like the exchange of physical goods.”

Got to thank the ever wonderful Alan S. for that one.

Switching off










Seems that the world has finally caught up with the idea that we are becoming too connected and that a little disconnection from time to time would be a good thing. Then again, perhaps it’s just July/August and some people just want to be left alone on holiday.

It’s interesting to note that the current issue of Fast Company is all about switching off. So too is the current issue of Stylist magazine. They interviewed me on the phone about this issue a few weeks ago (so not quite as disconnected as they’ll have you believe in the magazine!).


BTW, here’s a tiny taste of what I was saying in my book Future Minds back in 2010.


A study from the University of California (Irvine) claims that we last, on average, three minutes at work before something interrupts us. Another study from the UK Institute of Psychiatry claims that constant disruption has a greater effect on IQ than smoking marijuana. No wonder, then, that the all-time bestselling reprint from the Harvard Business Review, a management magazine, is an article about time management. But did anyone find the time to actually read it properly?

We have developed a culture of instant digital gratification in which there is always something to do—although, ironically, we never seem to be entirely satisfied with what we end up choosing. Think about the way people jump between songs on an iPod, barely able to listen to a single song, let alone a whole album. No wonder companies such as Motorola use phrases like “micro boredom” as an opportunity for product development.

Horrifyingly, a couple in South Korea recently allowed their small baby daughter to starve to death because they became obsessed with raising an “avatar child” in a virtual world called Prius Online. According to police reports, the pair, both unemployed, left their daughter home alone while they spent 12-hour sessions raising a virtual daughter called Anima from an internet café in a suburb of Seoul.

Internet addiction is not yet a globally recognized medical condition, but it is only a matter of time. Already 5–10 per- cent of internet users are “dependent,” according to the Computer Addiction Center at Harvard’s McLean Hospital. This is hardly surprising when you stop to consider what is going on. According to a University of California (San Diego) study, we consumed three times more information in 2008 as we did back in 1960.

Furthermore, according to Clifford Nass, a professor of communications at Stanford University, there is a growing cohort of people for whom the merest hint of new information, or the faintest whiff that something new is going on somewhere else, is irresistible. You can see the effect of connectivity cravings first hand when people rush to switch on their cellphones the second their plane lands, as though whatever information is held inside their phone is so important, or life threatening, that it can’t wait for five or ten minutes until they are inside the air- port terminal. I know. I do it myself.

The thought of leaving home without a cellphone is alarming to most people. So is turning one off at night (many people now don’t) or on holiday. Indeed, dropping out of this hyper-connected world, even for a week, seems like an act of electronic eccentricity or digital defiance.

In one US study, only 3 out of 220 US students were able to turn their cellphones off for 72 hours. Another study, con- ducted by Professor Gayle Porter at Rutgers University, found that 50 percent of BlackBerry users would be “concerned” if they were parted from their digital device and 10 percent would be “devastated.”

It’s more or less the same story with email. Another piece of research, by, found that 28 percent of respondents checked email at least daily when on a long weekend break and 39 percent said they checked email at least once a day when on holiday for a week or more.

A study co-authored by Professor Nada Kakabadse at the University of Nottingham in the UK noted that the day might come when employees will sue employers who insist on 24/7 x 365 connection. Citing the example of the tobacco industry, the researchers noted how the law tends to evolve to “find harm.” So if employers are creating a culture of constant connectedness and immediacy, responsibility for the ensuing societal costs may eventually shift from the individual to the organization. Broken marriage and feral kids? No problem, just sue your employer for the associated long-term costs.

A banker acquaintance of mine once spent a day in a car park above a beach in Cornwall because it was the only spot in which he could make mobile contact with his office. His firm had a big deal on and his virtual presence was required. “Where would I have been without my BlackBerry?” he said to me later. My response was: “On holiday with your family taking a break from work and benefiting from the reflection that distance provides.” He hasn’t spoken to me since we had this conversation, although he does send me emails occasionally. I usually pretend that I’m on a beach and haven’t received them.

It’s happening everywhere. I have a middle-aged female friend (a journalist) who goes to bed with a small electronic device every night. Her husband is fed up and claims it’s ruining their sex life. Her response is that she’s in meetings all day and needs to take a laptop to bed to catch up with her emails. This is a bit extreme, but I know lots of other people who take their cellphones to bed. How long before they’re snuggled up in bed late at night “attending” meetings they missed earlier, having downloaded them onto their iPad or something similar? Talk about having more than two people in a marriage.

Our desire to be constantly connected clearly isn’t limited to work. Twitter is a case in point. In theory, Twitter is a fun way to share information and keep in touch, but I’m starting to wonder whether it’s possible to be too in touch.
I have some friends who are “Twits” and if I wanted to I could find out what they’re doing almost 24/7. One, at least, will be “Eating marmite toast” at 7.08 pm and the other will be “In bed now” at 11.04 pm or “looking forward to the weekend” at 11.34 pm. Do I need to know this?

Why is all of this significant? In A Mind of Its Own, Cordelia Fine makes the point that the brain’s default set- ting is to believe, largely because the brain is lazy and this is the easier, or more economical, position. However, when the brain is especially busy, it takes this to extremes and starts to believe things that it would ordinarily question or distrust. I’m sure you know where I’m going with this but in case you are especially busy—or on Twitter—let me spell it out. Our decision-making abilities are at risk because we are too busy to consider alternatives properly or because our brains trip us up by fast tracking new information. We become unable to exclude what is irrelevant and retain an objective view on our experience, and we start to suffer from what Fredric Jameson, a US cultural and political theorist, calls “culturally induced schizophrenia.”

If we are very busy there is every chance that our brain will not listen to reason and we will end up supporting things that are dangerous or ideas that seek to do us, or others, harm. Fakery, insincerity, and big fat lies all prosper in a world that is too busy or distracted. Put bluntly, if we are all too busy and self-absorbed to notice or challenge things, then evil will win by default. Or, as Milan Kundera put it: “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”

Crikey. That sounds to me like quite a good reason to unsubscribe from a few email newsletters and turn the cell- phone off once in a while—to become what Hal Crowther terms “blessedly disconnected.”


Information anxiety

Feeling anxious today? The reason could be a surfeit of information and the long-term consequences could include critical errors. A study conducted by Angela Dimoka, director of the Center for Neural Decision Making at Temple University (US) has found that as information flow is increased, so too is activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a region of the rain associated with decision making. Sounds good, but is it? As the flow of information is increased further, activity in this region suddenly falls off.

Why could this be so?

The reason is that part of the brain has essentially left the building. When incoming information reaches a certain point the brain protects itself by shutting down certain of its functions. The result is that decision-making is impaired. Other consequences include a tendency for anxiety and stress levels to soar and for people to abstain from making any kind of decision at all. Even worse is the impact on creative thinking, which research suggests requires periods of incubation and reflection to function well.

During the recent BP disaster, Coastguard Admiral Thad Allen, who was the incident commander at the time, received between 300 and 400 pages of emails, texts and reports every day during the oil rig blow out. Nobody is making a direct connection between this data deluge and subsequent actions but the possibility certainly exists.

The takeaway here is that Dimoka’s research suggests that being exposed to too much information is changing how we think and we should think carefully about restricting the flow of incoming (and outgoing) information and also pre-pan periods of quiet down time and reflection.

Why getting staff to do nothing can be good business

Here I am again, this time on Qantas QF31 from Singapore to London listening to Jeff Buckley (Grace) whilst looking out of the window at a marmalade sunset disappearing beneath a froth of white cloud.

My information purging experiment has been interesting. I have not looked at a newspaper for 3 weeks and my television viewing and internet use has been close to zero over the same period. As a result my data deluge has evaporated and my thinking about various issues has shifted.

I have suddenly had more time. I have become less distracted, more relaxed and more reflective. I am also more alert to people within my immediate vicinity and I seem to have become a magnet for serendipitous encounters. In short, interesting information and ideas have found me without me deliberately searching for them.

If you speak to management consultants they will use words like granularity to illustrate the importance of detail. This might be a good idea if your ambition is to fine tune a well oiled machine operating in a stable environment, but there is the danger of getting lost in detail and my recent experience would seem to suggest that what we might need is much more of the opposite, especially if your aim to build new machines to operate in unexplored and uncertain terrain.

What we need to do is focus more of the big picture, those tectonic plates that lie beneath our feet, but which have become largely invisible due to our fixation with daily minutiae. For example, in my view the media has become too obsessed with immediacy and ‘news’ over careful analysis. There is literally no time to think, or to create the conditions in which people will be forced to think, when we are plugged into live news feeds, status updates, friendship requests and Google alerts 24/7.

One of my serendipitous conversations last week was with someone in Sydney who observed that holidays were once places where people switched off and relaxed. This in turn enabled people to return to work refreshed. However, what seems to have occurred recently is that people are being forced to use their holidays to catch-up with work and to do the kind of deep thinking that is increasingly impossible at work. As a result people have next to no down time. They are tired all the time because they never switch off or disconnect and this is impacting not only the quality of their thinking and decision-making but also their relationships.

So what’s the solution? In my case a mixture of control, alt and delete.
I am going to get rid of various alerts, subscriptions and favourites and focus on a few select sources, most of which will be on paper in order to slow things down a little.  I am also going to continue with my policy of being unavailable at certain times and of frequenting certain places where mobile communication is either not allowed or is blocked. Some people will call me a Luddite for doing this, but at least they won’t be able to call me up to tell me in person.

As for organizations, I think that they will eventually see the dangers inherent in too much busyness, especially Too Much Information and Too Much Connectivity. They will slowly see the importance of sometimes doing absolutely nothing and it will dawn on them that policies will need to be developed to either limit the amount of work that employees are allowed to take home or mandate a certain amount of vacation time.

Looking out of more windows might help too.