From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

October 31, 2008*: It's too quiet here - I can't think.

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" world?

That particular article suggested that a sheltered environment wasn't necessarily desirable:

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 incredibly difficult.

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.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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