Information Addiction

IEEE Spectrum Magazine, Sept. 1999

In the midst of a business meeting I looked down the length of the conference table at the rapt faces of my associates.  Well, not exactly rapt, to be honest.  Scattered among the people at the table were five open laptops with wireless LAN attachments.  The owners of those five laptops had their faces fixated upon their LCD displays, and they wore what I think of as the one-yard vacant stare of the information addict.

The laptop dropouts, as I think of them, are multiplying in business meetings.  Perhaps the fundamental problem is that the pace of many such meetings is tedious, and we have been trained on MTV and Headline News.  If something new and interesting hasn’t happened in the last 30 seconds, we feel this irresistible impulse to check the outside world.  It’s like there is a media access control layer in our minds that wants to multiplex time among the available sources.  An interrupt triggers, and it’s time to monitor a pager or a wireless Palm Pilot.  In the near future perhaps there will be no real people at these meetings – only virtual, multiplexed people.

I couldn't quite make out the contents of the laptop displays from where I sat, which was no accident, I'm sure.   Nonetheless, having been in the same situation often myself, I could well imagine what they showed.  My first guess would be email.

What is it about email?  I can remember when information was on paper and company mail came just twice a day.  Some years ago in my company, in a daring cost-saving move, it was announced that thereafter mail would be delivered only once a day.  I recall the cries of outrage that met this announcement.  How could we survive on only one mail delivery a day?  But, in truth, we accommodated to this slow pace of information dissemination.  Now, because the capability for instant electronic dissemination exists, we have developed an insatiable craving for continuous gratification of our information appetite.  We must have our regular fix of email.

During a recent meeting I was guilty myself of checking email.  Indeed, there was a new message for me, and I was surprised to see that it had been sent by the person sitting across the table from me.  The email said, “Isn’t this a boring meeting?”  I glanced over at him, trying to make eye contact, but his attention was focused completely on the speaker at the head of the table.  Not a glimmer of a smile crossed his face.

If there is no email to satisfy the information appetite, many people seem compulsively to check the stock market quotes.  This is a curious phenomenon.  It's not as if we're all day-traders hovering over every miniscule movement of our stocks.  It’s more like there is a giant collaborative game being played in the sky.  Checking the market on the web is like looking up at the scoreboard at an athletic event.  The idea of a stock "ticker", born in an ancient technology, is now the frenetic drum beat heard throughout the information world.

Before the Internet, the market used to be something that happened while the rest of us worked.  We would hear during the evening news or in the morning newspaper what had happened.  Now it hovers in real time right on our desktops, a twitch of the mouse away from our consciousness.  The impulse to effect that twitch is irresistible.  An associate told me recently that on those marginal holidays when the stock market is closed, but when the rest of us work, he feels a strange emptiness in the environment.  There’s no market to check.  It’s like nothing is happening out there in the world.

My last guess would be the scavenger hunt of failed web searches.  You know how it is.  It’s like the old song about the roundabouts in Boston where you go in and circle endlessly.  You start with a perfectly legitimate keyword search for some information topic.  You get 10,000 hits, none of which seems relevant, and later you find yourself in some Alice in Wonderland tour of the underground of strange web sites, having entirely forgotten your original inquiry.

When you get used to being plugged into the network, having a disconnected laptop in places like airplanes feels lonely.   What do you do when there is no email, no market, and no web access?  On a recent flight I took a small survey of all the open laptops that I saw.  I walked down the aisle and glanced surreptitiously at the screens.  Were these people writing business documents?  No way!  The majority use was the game Solitaire.  In the spirit of this crowd, I tried my hand at the game FreeCell, which is built into most Windows systems.  I promptly lost six or seven games before winning a few.  Feeling a presence over my shoulder, I looked up into the inquiring face of a flight attendant.

“How are you doing with FreeCell?” she asked knowledgeably.  Before I could conjure up a face-saving answer, she reached down and clicked on the “statistics” button on the game’s screen.  It was quickly revealed to my humiliation that my win rate was only 30%.  “My own win rate is 45%,” she said proudly, and then added the respectful note that the man who had sat in my seat on the last flight had been at 75%.  I closed my laptop and started pretending that I was a lawyer.  Later I checked the web and discovered that of the 32,000 deals programmed into FreeCell, 31,999 have been won.  Only one deal is considered unwinable.  So take that, you 75% guy!

All this frenetic and compulsive behavior associated with computers has the characteristics of an addiction.  Our attention spans keep shrinking.  Check the email, check the market, surf aimlessly, repeat.  Increasingly we seem to think in terms of life as a series of mouse clicks.  Click, click, click passes the day.  As a result, are we better informed, or are we merely entertained?  In darker moments I think of it all as a big pinball game.  We feel the excitement of the ball careening down the board, lights flashing, bells ringing, and the scoreboard streaming huge numbers.  We feel engaged and alive.  But when the ball reaches the bottom, what do we have as a residue?  Better us, or just time lost?


Robert W. Lucky