From the Boidem -
October 31, 2008*: It's too quiet
here - I can't think.
occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life
I've grown so accustomed to being told that being bombarded
with too much information is having an adverse effect on my life, that it was
hard for me not to do a bit of a double take when the headline on one of the
tech-oriented blogs I read called out: "Why
Online 'Noise' is Good for You". Was this, perhaps, a turning point
in the pendulum swing from the need to combat info-glut toward an acceptance,
perhaps even an embrace, of it? Was I witnessing a change in attitude in which
until-now secret noise-lovers felt save enough to start creeping out of the closet to admit that
their ability to get things done actually increased with noise? (On the other hand, was this perhaps no more than simply
an "if you can't beat-um" response to
a new reality?) Were we about to discover that in order to think things through,
a convention center atmosphere may sometimes be preferable to that of a library?
Can it be that the sheltered atmosphere of a quiet
classroom isn't actually preferable to the bustle of the "real"
That particular article suggested that a sheltered environment wasn't necessarily
Filtering isn't everything it's cracked up to be, though, and you wouldn't want to live in a fully filtered world all the time. Social media noise is an essential part of learning and living on the web.
To a certain extent the issue of filtering, or of not filtering,
is just another way of dealing with multi-tasking, of asking how many different
streams of information we can process at one and the same time. But multi-tasking
assumes an "at the same time-edness" which is different from what
I'm trying to get at here. The idea of dealing with "social media noise"
is much closer to the concept of "continuous
partial attention" as defined by Linda Stone (and examined
here) but different from it as well.
Continuous partial attention derives from a desire not
to miss anything - to be tuned in to as many channels that just might be broadcasting
something of interest to us as we can. It assumes that "where the action
is" can be just about everywhere (and is often, for some strange reason, where
we aren't), and for that reason we should continually have our feelers out,
be checking out all the possible territories. Continuous partial attention, however,
is a means of dealing with the multiplicity of interesting items around
us - it derives from a focus on the external. Accepting the noise (for lack of
a better name) stems from the feeling that we're not satisfied with what's already
in us. It's means of acknowledging that we have an internal need for continual
input. Cable television gives us an unlimited number of channels to watch, and
for some reason, even though we hardly ever flip through everything that's available,
we still want the possibility of more. Again, though
this may be due to a sort of "happiness is just behind that next bend"
thinking on our part, it's my guess that rather than being an expression of a
modern-day malaise of a feeling of emptiness, we have a need for continual input
that helps us position ourselves in our world.
Through being aware of what's happening around us, perhaps even especially when
we know that we're not going to be taking part in those happenings, we become
more aware of what our priorities truly are. It may have been the case that in
quieter times people didn't even expect "noise" and thus had no problem
living with the quiet, and that we're still in the process of adjusting
to understanding noise as an integral, and positive aspect, of our lives.
Background noise seems to be particularly associated with the internet. It's created
a situation in which it's become impossible to sit quietly and attend only to
one task. The never-ending barrage of information that's continually exploding
around us makes serious concentration impossible. But a claim such as this assumes
that when we sit quietly at our desks, pencil poised studiously above the page,
reflecting on the precise phrase necessary to express an idea or a feeling, we're
actually focused on only one issue/item. From my own experience, this has
never been the case.
Even so, it's hard to argue with the claim that the quantity
of information that the internet offers us brings about a qualitative change in
the way we relate to it. Filtering is easy when there's a relatively slow flow.
When an entire fire hose of information is turned upon us at full blast, however,
filtering becomes an extremely difficult endeavor. Permitting ourselves to be
distracted is one thing, not being able to avoid being distracted is another.
It's perhaps worth noting that this full blast of information is both push and
pull. While sitting at my desk I ordinarily choose not to disregard the flashing
icon that tells me that new mail has arrived, or that someone wants to chat with
me. I usually think to myself that even though I'm trying to write something, I'll
be losing my concentration soon anyway, so why not do so when there's a
clear and present stimulus. But though I can choose to ignore that stimulus,
it's definitely an intrusion. That isn't the case with an open browser, with an
empty search box waiting patiently (or perhaps impatiently) for me to type in
a term and click on Search. This is rather obviously a clear-cut case of pull
- nobody is imposing upon me to make use of that search box, but the simple availability
of a nearby info-fix, when mixed with a wandering mind, makes ignoring that box
All of this suggests, though hardly
proves, that if I want to get some work done, the worst place for me to try
and do so is a library. Too much quiet forces my mind to wander, whereas a pleasant
degree of noise reminds me that I'm wandering (which anyway was inevitable). Noise
gives me just enough input to provide some positive direction to my wandering,
to establish points of orientation that may be leading toward what eventually
turn out to be cognitive dead-ends, but at least lead somewhere. True, we sometimes
tend to feel that information is a weapon, and that
we're constantly under attack, but a bit of stress has been known to catalyze
more than a bit of productive thought. So please keep that radio
on (maybe not at full volume, but certainly at a level that causes me to notice
it). Let the television news, and maybe even a sit-com, float somewhere close
to my plane of awareness. I may not actually devote much attention to these, but
they'll act as a constant info-feed. It's the distractions that keep me on track.
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