Tuesday, January 18, 2011

info overload: navigating a sea of data and occasionally drowning

Yesterday's New York Times front-page article, in the series they call "Your Brain on Computers,"  has prompted several thoughts ("In New Military, Data Overload Can Be Deadly").  First, before I forget the thought forged on this morning's walk with our dog Sybil, Nicholas Carr's call for balance keeps re-surfacing in my conversations with others and with myself.  While he recognizes our ability to retrieve information with the new technologies, Carr sees us losing the complementary ability to contemplate.  (Incidentally, I wonder how much these two ways of thinking overlap with what Karen Armstrong, in A Short History of Myth and The Case for God, calls "logos" and "mythos.")  The Times article focuses on the US military's use of technology to remotely communicate with battlefields in Afghanistan and elsewhere.  The military is on the "forefront" of figuring out how to manage information overload, especially for those soldiers who monitor "Death TV" back in Nevada and elsewhere.  Investigators are trying to determine what goes wrong, when the armed services personnel accidentally kill local civilians.  Apparently, in a recent case, those monitoring a steady stream of incoming video data did not notice the strong evidence of children present in the "convoy" they were watching.  In other words, their brains did not successfully navigate the sea of data; they drowned, and those children died.  Carr's call to preserve our contemplative abilities, as a route to greater balance, increasingly resonates with me--as I observe my own behavior, as well as the students'.

Second, the Times article prompted my reaction to the statement that the military is "at the forefront in figuring out how humans can cope with technology without becoming overwhelmed" (A6).  (Incidentally, I find helpful this mention of becoming overwhelmed; I can guide students and talk with colleagues more effectively, if I remember that part of the issue involves the degree of distraction.)  Later, the article quotes an assistant professor working with the military: "The whole question we're asking is whether we can rewire the functioning of the attention system through mindfulness."  Although the term "rewiring" has emerged recently, the practice of mindfulness began thousands of years ago near the area we now call India.  I couldn't help but notice that we are re-discovering (re-learning) what we humans have known, or used to know.  In one sense, this ancient skill has existed on our collective screen all along--like those children in the Death TV video.


  1. Great piece, Bill. As I substitute teach more and more - hey, it's a living - I am particularly aware of the lack of mindfulness present in today's students. To simply stop, attempt to understand and/or link together the information of the moment or of the moments is becoming an increasingly difficult thing for our students to do. Perhaps future schools can buck this trend by promoting contemplation and mindfulness on the part of students and faculty as a selling point - "At the Balwind School, we ask our students to think . . ." Unfortunately, might not find much of a market niche today.

  2. Thanks, Bob. Keep up the good work. Interesting point about market niche. If the brain changes are starting to occur throughout the population, fewer people may recognize the need for such stopping and understanding.