Sunday, January 23, 2011


I was watching this archived webcast today. It gets contentious about halfway in, but I like that, it makes me want to write about the subject. This is a borderline rant, I guess, but I hope you enjoy it.

A lot of the conversations we have about the nature of technology stresses, well, stress. Just as an easy example, the author of that webcast specifically calls it "panic architecture" which, like many other terms, is coined to make a point rather than be useful.

Assuming you don't want to listen to the hour of webcast, I'll cover the bits I touch on. In this case, "panic architecture" is used to refer to the theoretical stimulus overload from tweets and emails and IMs all popping up at you all the time.

I can't help but turn down this kind of shallow analysis. Not only is there no real evidence to support it, but there's also no sign that these clumsy first-generation implementations are the only ones we're going to see.

We've developed tools to let us share with everyone, everywhere, instantly. We're now using tools that let us "hear" without having to be listening.

Every kind of "panic architecture" interaction is actually asynchronous. That is, the computer tells you that there's a new message, and you can get around to reading it whenever you like. Some pieces of software are worse than others - Twitter is only barely asynchronous, since if you wait more than an hour or so, you'll have a backlog too deep to sift through. So you lose a lot of data down the tubes if you wait.

I guess you could say that's a high-pressure environment, but not really. The only reason it's high-pressure is because you've tricked yourself into thinking it's important to view everything, and view it fast. Trying to make sure you don't miss any tweets is sort of like trying to make absolutely sure you see every single person who passes by the Starbucks. It's not a sensible reaction.

If we feel stressed by these "always on" tools, it's because we've tricked ourselves into viewing them in the wrong way. Part of that might be pure neurochemistry, but I think it's mostly a cultural maladaptation which will fade in time as we get used to the technology and learn, as a populace, that it's okay to let the river flow by without trying to drink it all.

Also, there is another generation of tools past these "hear without listening" tools.

Phone calls extend our ears so we can talk over long distances. But that's only this very instant. So we use emails, RSS and the like to extend our memory: we can think about something long after it has been said.

And now we're going to get a new breed of tool: one which extends our thinking about something across vast distances. Already, we're seeing it. We don't get all our emails: we get only the emails our outboard brain doesn't discard as spam. Many of us have dozens of rules about which emails are further flagged and sorted. This lets us determine whether something needs to be read soon, or whether it can be put off until we feel vaguely curious.

In the future, more intelligent tools will have a system for cuing things up. If it's important, it tells you immediately. If it's interesting but not important, it'll bother you with a quick line and link every few days. If it's something good for you that you can't seem to sit down and get through, it'll keep pestering you.

Essentially, this new breed of tool is a computerized version of the thing in our brains that says "hey, the roof is leaking, maybe we should fix that before it rains again."

Right now, we often try to deal with a true deluge of information right against our brains. I agree that this is not really a very good idea. At the very least, it sets a very low upper limit to the amount of things we can consider. By creating smart tools to deal with that deluge for us, we can consider terabytes of information every hour.

I need to stress that this isn't some fantasy tale of strong AI. We already do this to a great extent by using RSS feeds - we sign up for the news outlets we like, whether they're brand names or individuals with blogs. We use them as our roof-is-leaking engines. I'm simply pointing forward and saying "there's gonna be more of this." For example: Priority Inbox

It is true that humans sometimes feel lost and confused by advances. But this is nothing new. People felt lost and confused when the king changed, or weirdos with funny accents started settling in their alluvial plains. Change makes people feel stressed out, regardless of whether it's technology or culture or any other source.

So, yes, a lot of people feel stressed out by the "constant bombardment" of our "always on" culture. Except that it's not constant bombardment, it's not always on, and the tools for dealing with it gracefully are evolving as we speak. As always, we adapt to our situations and find out the best way to take advantage of the opportunities we are offered.

To me, the real "panic architecture" is the way soft sciences and media outlets continuously scream about dangers that never arrive, dangers that were never even dangers. It interferes with adult's acceptance of change when you scream that every change is a disaster. Kids don't give a shit - a kid will use Twitter and Facebook even if their parents think it is pure poison. But adults have to work to learn these tools, to integrate them into their life even a little bit, and panicking about them just makes the task that much more difficult.

I don't, by the way, think that the webcast I mentioned at the beginning is an example of that kind of panicky statement. I don't know enough about the author to say anything about her, and at worst, the webcast itself is kind of ambivalent on the subject. It's just a handy turn of phrase to steal her words and make another point with them.

There are actually a lot of other things I want to argue about that were covered in that webcast, but this is long enough already.

(By the way, I'm going to coin a term in opposition to the normal way of coining a term. "Roof-is-leaking engines", or RILEs: that's a term that could be useful, but it isn't very good at making a point. )


Thomas said...

I think you're right that we can use algorithms to filter through the vast amount of data we receive every day and it is definitely possible to ignore a big chunk of the stuff that reaches us every day, but you forget, that there are not only people panicking and reasonable people who use all those services as a tool to widen your horizon, there are people who use those tools as a standard interface for communication and those are under peer pressure by the likes of them. "Why didn't you answer me? Why haven't you been online for a week now?" This kind of behavior is in my eyes not really healthy and it is not trivial to be aware of your right to ignore people on the internet even when you have known them since school.

Craig Perko said...

I agree. That's why I said it's a cultural maladaptation...

Thomas said...

I guess, that's why it is important to read carefully. Sorry, I must have missed that part somehow.

Craig Perko said...

I wasn't trying to blame you, I was just agreeing...

Amber Case said...

Great analysis. Thanks so much for writing such an excellent essay on the webcast. Made me think quite a bit differently on how I should present things in the future.