Connections, Distractions, and Time

Paul Kedrosky runs Infectious Greed, a consistently thoughtful and entertaining site devoted to financial affairs, with periodic forays into deepthink.

In a recent post C-Beams Glittering Near Tannhauser Gate,* he takes up the issue of information overload and distraction:

It’s  easy to be seduced into information overload. We all have a propensity for it, for the compulsion that there is one more nugget, one more piece of information — something unfound that if we just scan it … everything will fit into place, or something. Whether it’s emails, web sites (like this one), Twitter, Facebook, etc., the causes and symptoms are the same. We hunger for that extra information experience, our own c-beams glittering somewhere near Tannhauser Gate.

This is the same theme taken up by Nick Carr in The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (2010):

Over the past few years, I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going – as far as I can tell – but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I feel it most strongly when I’m reading. I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article. My mind would get caught up in the twists of the narrative or the turns of the argument . . . . That’s rarely the case any more. Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do.

Carr pays tribute to the incredible bounty of the Internet in providing access to information and saving time that once had to be spent on mundane tasks such as shopping, but adds:

The boons are real. But they come at a price. . . . And what the net seems to be doing is chipping away at my capacity for concentration and contemplation. . . . Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.

This problem takes many forms. (Personally, I keep acquiring books relevant to the issue – see, e.g. The Net Delusion – but have trouble finding the time and focus to read them.) Google frets that its searches produce useless results, as multiple websites scrape content from creator originators in the effort to attract eyeballs to be sold to advertisers, and is trying to adapt its algorithms to filter out such me-tooism. But Google’s efforts are directed at the most blatant spam not at the pollution caused by copycat nature of much of the mainstream media and the blogosphere, which often link back and forth into a hall of mirrors with infinite sources and little new information.

One of the problems is the assumption called Metcalfe’s Law, which is usually quoted as saying that “the value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system (n2).” Metcalfe did not actually say that, and, as many have noted, it is not a very good depiction of reality anyway. A large part of the value of any network is option value – there is value in being able to connect, but not in having a connection forced. As is obvious from our universal irritation with spam, the idea that everyone in the world can reach one by email can be a bug of the Internet, not a feature. The value of a network lies not just in the option to reach people, but in the ability to exclude them. This is, of course, the insight that forms the basis of the value of Facebook, which requires voluntary connections.

Kedrosky discusses various tricks he uses to try to preserve space for focus and depth, such as cutting off the connectivity except for specific time windows. I have refused to join the Twitter craze, on the grounds that I am already drowning in the sea of email and Internet information, so why should I add something designed absolutely to distract rather than focus me?

Increasingly, value on the Internet will be provided by services that filter out distractions and repetitions. One of the best mechanisms for this is payment. From my point of view, the information that is most likely to be valuable to me is that for which the provider demands payment from me, for the obvious reason that if I do not receive value then I will not pay and the provider will not have a business. An alternative is the situation where the provider must pay money to reach me, again, because if the transaction does not add value somewhere then it will not occur. The spam epidemic is due to the fact that sending spam costs almost zero, so even a minuscule response rate pays off. What is not counted, of course, is the cost of the time spent by the non-interested in registering and zapping the spam. The sobering math is that spam sent to 10 million people, if each of them takes only two seconds to register and delete it, takes up 20 million human-time-seconds, which , costed at a measly $10/hour, is $55,000 in lost time value. Plus the distraction factor.

Seen in this context, the free culturists assumption that we need to build infinite bandwidth to accommodate every use and communication, regardless of its effect on our time and attention – which is one of the assumptions underlying the whole net neutrality movement – seems wrong, because it values people’s time at zero. In fact, market systems that require somebody to pay may be necessary if we are to preserve the most valuable of all commodities, our time and our brains. It is best for me to be required to pay money if that is what it takes to discourage people from appropriating my time. There are some trade-offs here that are going undiscussed by the Jet Skiers zipping along the surface, but Roy Batty would have understood.


*The reference is to end of Blade Runner (1982), that great film meditation on the nature of being human, when the dying replicant Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) says:

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tanhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.

And if you are not familiar with Blade Runner, well, stop wasting your time on the Internet and go watch it.

[Cross-posted at Digital Society]