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Friday, August 18, 2006

Beware Of 'Infomania'

E-mail's greatest virtues are that it's cheap and fast. Those also are its biggest dangers.
Before you know it, you can end up with hundreds of e-mails a day from your staff, your friends, your relatives, your business contacts, your suppliers, your clients.
Then you'll need to get a BlackBerry so these simple e-mails can follow you wherever you travel. You'll have to learn how to use your thumbs to type, and sooner or later, you will become addicted to that little black box. You are on your way to what Jeffrey Haas, a tech columnist for NOW magazine, calls "infomania"--a disease that can drain your brain.
He writes about a recent British study that observed that excessive day-to-day use of technology such as cellphones, e-mail and instant messaging can be more distracting and harmful to your mental acuity than smoking pot.
The Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London conducted clinical trials with volunteer office workers to measure how a constant flow of messages and information affects a person's ability to focus on problem-solving tasks.
Participants were asked first to work in a quiet environment, and then while being inundated with e-mail, instant messaging and phone calls. Although they were told not to respond to messages, researchers found their subjects' attention was significantly disturbed.
Instead of boosting productivity, the constant data stream seriously reduced the volunteers' ability to focus. The study reported that an average worker's functioning IQ falls 10 points when distracted by ringing telephones and incoming e-mails, more than twice the four-point drop seen following a 2002 Carleton University study on the impact of smoking marijuana.
Too much data clamors for conscious attention. It all wants to evolve into information and then knowledge. Just deciding what to ignore takes intellectual effort, and, inevitably, one's quality of work suffers.
And quality of life suffers, too.
The study showed that 62% of adults are literally addicted to checking e-mail and text messages during meetings, in the evening and on weekends.
Half of workers respond to e-mails immediately or within 60 minutes, and one in five people are happy to interrupt a business or social meeting to respond to an e-mail or telephone message within 60 minutes.
The study warns of the abuse of always-on technology and calls this endemic condition infomania.
Now, a few words about PowerPoint. Be careful about this seductive software for presentation graphics. It can turn very simple thoughts into very complex images. When you're presenting information on a screen, keep it simple. Seven lines of text is the limit. One visual element per slide is the ideal.
And don't be seduced by the endless array of new gadgets being offered that do everything imaginable. Does all this gear make life simpler? Make the executive more productive? More efficient?
Are you kidding? I was once in a meeting at Intel (nasdaq: INTC - news - people ). Everyone had a gadget that they put on the conference table. This was followed by 15 minutes of gadget envy as they were discussed. Not having a gadget, I asked the group to tell me what they did with them. When they finished, I said, "Everything you're doing, I have my assistant do. You're wasting your time." They readily agreed but pointed out that there were few assistants left at Intel, with the exception of the office of their CEO, Andy Grove. He, it turned out, had three assistants. I rested my case.
Professor Hugh Heclo of George Mason University observes: "In the long run, excesses of technology means that the comparative advantage shifts from those with information glut to those with ordered knowledge, from those who can process vast amount of throughput to those who can explain what is worth knowing, and why."


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