Control the flow

There is an abundance of information in the world. You might even say there is an overabundance of information. I’d argue that the problem is not that the information exists, but rather it’s all too easy to get to. In fact, you don’t even have to go to it. Information comes to you, all the time, through multiple channels at once. And often it’s just too much. Compounding this problem is the lack of automated, intelligent and accurate filtering systems. The only way to deal with incoming information is to manually look at it and set up filtering systems by hand. Combine the abundant influx of information and the lack of ways to automatically parse and filter said information and you end up with a debilitating information overload.

If we ever want to get anything done, there is only so much time we can spend each day on absorbing information. To create, design, build or produce anything of value we need to temporarily cut ourselves off from the stream. Unfortunately the increasingly ubiquitous presence of the Internet combined with email, RSS and Twitter make such disconnection a hard proposition to swallow. For me at least, the temptation is strong to just compulsively check the streams all day long. It’s like constantly refreshing an inbox, but more addictive because everything is coming in faster. Furthermore, the addiction is real. Our information streams leverage variable reinforcement to keep us hooked. Every time there is something new we get a little dopamine high that makes us want to come back for more.

The price we pay, the price I pay, for paying attention to the stream is all the things that could have been created, but aren’t. And as the days go by, that price only gets steeper. You can’t have a brain concentrating on creative work if it’s hovering over multiple inboxes, hoping that something interesting will come through. Something’s got to give. At the end of the day we either give up hope of ever accomplishing anything worthwhile (and many of us do) or we constrict the streams, control the flow, reduce the inboxes and do the work.

We could go all the way – give up email, connect to the Internet sparingly, focus inward instead of outward. But let’s be clear: the Internet is pretty darn amazing and I love having the combined knowledge of humanity a few keystrokes away. You can have the information superhighway when you pry it from my cold, dead, RSI-crippled hands. Till then, a little prudence is in order.

I’m giving up on blogs and RSS feeds that refresh more than once a day (with a few, very select exceptions). That cuts away most of the “news” blogs that I skip over anyway. I want to read things where I get a view of author’s mind and thoughts, the expression and intelligence of another human being. I want their words to come to me, because I’ve already read some of them and determined that I don’t want to miss them. If I want raw information, I’ll go and find it. I’ll read when I want to, at the end of a long, fruitful day, on a lazy Saturday morning, not compulsively every hour in fear of missing something.

I’m giving up on all the blogs that sound the same (this seems true of a lot of technology blogs unfortunately). It’s great that the Internet gives you a voice, that doesn’t mean I’m obliged to listen to it. Twitter is a flowing, meandering river – it comes, it goes, if I’m taking a dip it’s to be refreshed, not to be carried away. If I find a nugget of gold I stash it in Instapaper for later. I already have automated filters for email. I see messages on two conditions — they are urgent or they are unlike anything my system has seen so far. It’s not a personal AI, but it’ll do for now.

This mindset also extends to production: I write words in a plain text editor, publishing by automated, low-friction, no-fiddle means. The system is open-source, programmable, transferable between platforms. I can have it grow with me, I can file bug reports and submit patches so that it becomes better for others too. I write code in the same editor, hooked up to compilers, debuggers and source-code managers with similar low-friction scripts and commands. Nary a clickable button in sight. For hashing out ideas I rely on pen, paper, whiteboards and intelligent human beings. This means I have time and opportunity to slow down, reflect and revise. Everytime I put up something for others to see I want to ensure that it sucks a little less.

And so I am trying to constrict the inflow and filter the outflow. Never before in our history has it been easy to get to things. Never before has it been so easy to create and publish. A side-effect is that there is a lot of crap to consume, it’s so easy to produce mediocre widgets. It’s about time we stopped sabotaging ourselves (and by we, I mean I), stopped drowning in the sea of information, started doing things we’d be proud to have our names on. We’ve figured out the technology to create, let’s figure out how to filter and refine.