in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it (Simon, 1971)
I hope everyone agrees that attention is a scarce good. But I’m curious how people measure it. After all, if we’re going to talk about an economic good being scarce, we ought to quantify it!
One approach is to measure attention at a specific moment in time, measuring how much of our instantaneous cognitive capacity we devote to a task. This approach is useful for evaluating a user interface–in particular, for determining how users allocate their attention among the various interface elements. Another approach is to measure attention in units of time, e.g., how many of our waking hours do we devote to a particular activity. This latter strikes me as more of what Herb Simon had in mind.
We can interpret the two definitions as equivalent–after all, cumulative attention devoted to a task is simply the sum (or integral) of instantaneous attention over time. But thinking this way so misses a key consideration: we pay a significant price for context switching.
A familiar example is email. The total time we spend reading email is a productivity concern, but the larger concern for many of us is the frequency with which email causes us to interrupt our workflow. Knowing this, I made a brief attempt in 2008 to check email only once a day. Unfortunately, this approach would have violated too many of my peers’ expectations. I returned to status quo, reading my email (or at least scanning headers) as it arrives. Other messaging tools, such as instant messaging and Twitter, only add to the challenge of managing our personal communication flow.
Of course, what I really want is for my messaging tools to distinguish urgent messages from non-urgent ones, and to only interrupt my workflow for the former. I know that no system, whether based on manual filtering or algorithmic analysis, can make this subjective classification with 100% accuracy, but I’d certainly accept a handful of false positives in exchange for far fewer interruptions. I suspect I’m not alone.
Moreover, this approach extends beyond personal communications to more public ones, such as social media platforms and even web search. On one hand, the passing of time offers an opportunity to accumulate reliable content analysis; on the other hand, we don’t want to miss time-sensitive content just because the system waited too long to determine the content’s relevance to our information needs. Still, the low signal-to-noise ratio on social media platforms suggests to me that many information consumers would be amenable to a different tradeoff than the one we experience today.
What I’d really like to see is systems take advantage of the differences in users’ personal senses of urgency. Some examples:
- A widely broadcast email isn’t delivered all at once, but first goes to users with higher urgency settings. Because those users mark it as spam, the email is already marked as spam for users with lower urgency settings. Conversely, if enough high-urgency users mark it as important, then it may be sent to lower-urgency users sooner.
- High-urgency users frequently check news sites and blogs. If an article attract a threshold level of engagement from high-urgency users, then low-urgency users are notified. This approach could apply to general news or to news in a specific topic that the user follows.
- Same as above, but applied to activity feeds and based on engagement within your social network. But again, high-urgency users lead the way, seeing updates sooner but at the price of experiencing a noisier stream.
To some extent, our existing systems already approximate this approach. Mechanisms like favoriting and re-tweeting propagate signal from information scouts to their followers, as do algorithms that rank real-time information based on engagement. Still, as an information consumer, I’d appreciate an interface that explicitly and transparently adapts to my priorities, and that manages interruption of my workflow accordingly.
What do folks here think? Is information delayed tantamount to information denied? Or is time on our side, potentially offering us a better tradeoff than the one we experience today?