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Information Rich, Attention Poor September 25, 2009

Posted by Andre Vellino in Attention, Information.

globe-imageIn his recent Essay in the Globe and Mail, Peter Nicholson makes some interesting observations about the relationship between information and attention.

He observes that thanks to computing technology and crowdsourcing, there is an abundance of low-cost information and that the scarce resource now is attention (whose correlate resource is our time). We waste information because it’s free and we favour superficial coverage versus depth of thought.

We may think metaphorically of the production of knowledge as a function of “information” and “attention,” with attention understood as the set of activities by which information is ultimately transformed into various forms of knowledge.

I don’t think I’ve heard this non-cognitive definition of attention before: that which transforms information into knowledge.  It doesn’t quite work as a definition but attention is no doubt one of the ingredients required for this transformation. Intelligence is probably helpful as well.

Nicholson also observes that knowledge has changed recently from “stock” to “flow”. Knowledge-as-“thing”, an object to be to be accumulated and stored (stock), belongs to 20th century libraries.  21st century knowledge is more a “process” that changes and is updated all the time (flow).

There are two reasons for this, Nicholson says. One is that electronic information “permit[s] it to be changed continuously and almost at no cost.” The other is the “shift of intellectual authority from producers of depth – the traditional “expert” – to the broader public.” The result of this shift

….is the growing disintermediation of experts and gatekeepers of virtually all kinds.

This increasing “disintermediation” means we no longer need to think deeply for ourselves – we can rely on the wisdom of the crowds for just-in-time consumption (viz. Wikipedia).

This can’t last, he argues.  The buck (the deep thinking and attending) has to be done somewhere by someone.

What is apparently being eroded is the deep, integrative mode of knowledge generation that can come only from the “10,000 hours” of individual intellectual focus.

Maggie Jackson in her book “Distracted” goes further and suggests that our individual and collective inability to focus threatens the very fabric of civil society.  Our inability to pay attention makes us unable to distinguish between the trivial and the important.

A recent article entitled “Cognitive control in media multitaskers” published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences provides some evidence to support this.  In the abstract, the authors say:

….heavy media multitaskers performed worse on a test of task-switching ability, likely due to reduced ability to filter out interference from the irrelevant task set.

Which is consistent with the view that multitaskers are less able to discriminate between tasks that are important and those that are trivial.

Maggie Jackson isn’t alone in being concerned about our collective attention deficit disorder. Ottawa’s Heather Menzies concurs in “No Time“.

I was re-reading 1995 (i.e. pre commercial web) Unte Reader article the other day in which Pico Iyre was quoted as saying:

I worry about the relentless acceleration of the world, the dramatic shortening of our attention spans and the temptation […] to value information before knowledge and knowledge before wisdom.


1. think and grow rich - December 2, 2010

While we are in the area of Information Rich, Attention Poor Synthèse, with the number of existing scams nowadays, it may be rather tough to trust an chance whenever you get 1. Some will promise you thousands of dollars each and every month for a minimal fee but wind up going incognito once you make that investment.

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