Techno-Flood Solution: More Technology
By Ben Delaney © 1997

Originally published in the Marin Independent Journal, Sept. 8, 1997.

Infoglut. You may not have seen the word before. But if you use a computer to do your work, and especially if you're a frequent Internet user, you probably suffer from this insidious malady.

Infoglut creeps up on you. One day you notice you haven't answered your Email. For a month. Perhaps you're doing research on the world-wide web, and you find that your bookmark list is longer than your pant leg. Maybe you find a 30 page fax waiting for you, and you don't even know the person who sent it. Or you return from your much-too-short week at Tahoe, and find there are 143 phone messages, a foot high pile of mail, 120 emails, and six reports festooned with Post-its reading, "pls read and comment".

You're a victim of Infoglut. All of these are common symptoms. While not yet recognized by any medical associations – they're trying to catch up, and will get to it RSN (real soon now) – Infoglut is possibly the most serious problem facing business people the world over.

Modern telecommunications is the vector of Infoglut. Before faxes, answering machines, voice mail, automated response units, Email, and the Internet became common, most of us could handle the amount of information that flowed our way. But today, and increasingly so in the future, we are overwhelmed by the quantity of information that demands our attention. As business becomes global, and as downsizing strips away support staff at a dizzying pace, there are more demands on our cognitive powers. Most of us are having a hard time handling it.

There are two important issue to keep in mind when considering how to handle Infoglut. First, much, if not most of the data flowing your way is not important. Think about it. How much of your mail goes into the recycling bin unread? How many Emails do you get promoting weight loss, get rich quick, put your business on the Internet, etc.? How many calls do you get from stock brokers pitching the next Netscape? How many faxes promoting great vacation deals, or a super price on fax paper (which you need plenty of, since you get so many junk faxes)? Too many, I'm sure.

Even a lot of inter-office "information" is junk. Birthday party announcements for people you don't know. Obscure changes in the health insurance plan. The promotion of a second tier exec in the Omaha office. Who cares?

Secondly, even if you had a magic wand that you could wave over a pile of mail and make the junk disappear, you would still suffer from Infoglut! Another paradigm is changing. While the rule used to be "the one with the most toys wins", now the one with the most connections wins. Each connection adds to the information flow. The fact is, there is more relevant information available than most of us can digest and use. Short of traveling back to 1950, you're not going to be able to avoid it.

Is that the end of the tunnel, or an oncoming train?

Do you want the good news first, or the bad news? Well, I'm sorry to tell you, Infoglut is only going to get worse. What the printing press did for the romance novel, electronic publishing is doing to every variety of information. Not only that, but exciting new information types are piling onto your in-box faster than you can say "double decaf cappuccino". The flow of data is increasing exponentially, and you or your boss will think you need all of it. New ideas about how to use the Internet, and the rapid (also exponential) growth in the number of people using the Internet, mean that new types of information and new ways of looking at old information are appearing hourly. How can we possibly ride this wave?

OK, now for the good news. You aren't the only one to have this problem, kid. Some of the most connected people on the planet are the techno-gurus. They're overwhelmed, too. But the difference between you and Bill Gates (OK, other than a few billion dollars) is that he and his breed can do something about it. And they are.

The perhaps counter-intuitive key is more technology. New technology, including artificial intelligence, software agents, vocal input and output, and three dimensional graphic interfaces, are going to change the way we deal with information, as well as our co-workers, significant others, and everyone else.

Software agents are programs that accept our instructions and then go do a job for us, unseen, and generally unsupervised. Simple ones can already do a Web search or filter out junk Email. As the technology develops further, you will be able to say to your computer, "Get me everything you can find on Indonesian oil exploration as it effects indigenous people", and in a few minutes, hours, or days, a voice from the computer will say something like, "Gladys, I have that information you wanted on Indonesian oil fields. How would you like it?" You could request a verbal summary, a printed report, a chart, the creation of a data base, or whatever format fits your needs. This technology is almost ready, and will be available for people who can afford it in a year or two. Popularly priced versions will follow quickly.

Another big issue is finding things. Bigger hard disks are just the tip of the iceberg. The Internet is a huge, multi-dimensional library of almost anything you can imagine. You know the data you need is out there, but how do you find it? This is where I think interactive 3D interfaces, popularly called virtual reality, will come into common use.

If you do an Internet search with a search engine like Alta Vista or Yahoo, your results are presented in a list of text, sorted by some often obscure gauge of relevance. Imagine if this information was presented graphically instead. Perhaps the most likely matches flash red, and their connections to other sources are indicated by lines of varying thickness, which show you how strong the connection is. Closer items are more primary information, bigger icons represent more information. You could put your mouse cursor over a shape, and see or hear a summary of what the source can provide. You could point to several sources, and say, "find more like these", giving you a more refined solution.

Interfaces like this are appearing in computer labs now, and the first commercial products are starting to appear. Our current crop of computers and the current speed of common modems aren't capable of providing these services yet. But stay tuned. In five years your Infoglut will be better. Then maybe you'll be able to take a real vacation.
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