Get Reworked Podcast: How to Overcome Information Overload
It can often feel like we're drowning in a sea of meetings, documents, notifications and alerts. And to some degree that's true. Information overload is bad for you and it's bad for business. But that doesn't mean there's nothing we can do about it.
In this episode of Get Reworked, tech executive and historian David Lavenda joins us to put some perspective on the topic and how we can better manage the flood of information that comes our way. It's not the first time humanity has grappled with the challenge.
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"Throughout history, every time a new information technology has been created or become popular, there's always been somebody who stepped in and said, 'This time it's different.'" he said. "Eventually things work themselves out and we move on."
In this episode, David explains why information overload isn't a new problem and what we can do to better manage it in our personal and professional lives. Highlights of the conversation include:
- The history of information overload and how every generation has to grapple with it.
- The three different kinds of information overload.
- How topic computing and new technology can help.
- Why AI isn't going to solve our problems.
Plus, host Siobhan Fagan opens up about her Internet browser problem and she and co-host Mike Prokopeak set up a Slack conversation to initiate the Zoom meeting to create the Google Doc to address their channel overload problem.
Have a suggestion, comment or topic for a future episode? Drop us a line at [email protected].
- David Lavenda on LinkedIn and Twitter
- David's website
- David's Reworked author page with linked articles
- Wikipedia article: The commonplace book
Note: This transcript has been edited for space and clarity.
Mike Prokopeak: Hello and welcome to Get Reworked, your guide to the revolution of work. My name is Mike Prokopeak and I'm editor in chief at Reworked.co.
Siobhan Fagan: And I'm Siobhan Fagan, managing editor for Reworked. At Reworked.co, we're dedicated to covering the people, the culture, the technology and the infrastructure that makes up our quickly evolving workplaces.
Mike: Get Reworked is our podcast, brought to you by Simpler Media Group, where you'll hear from industry pioneers leading the way into the future of work, reshaping not just how we work, but also why. We're excited to bring you conversations about best practices, workplace trends and key technologies that support the modern distributed workforce.
Siobhan: Hey Mike. I've got a question for you this morning.
Mike: Okay. Might be too early, but go.
Siobhan: If I looked at your browser yesterday, at the end of the your workday, how many tabs would you have open?
Mike: Just yesterday, specifically?
Mike: Well, okay, I actually have two screens. And so I have a browser going on both screens in some cases. So there's probably anywhere from 15 to 20 tabs.
Siobhan: Wow, you're controlled.
Mike: You think?
Siobhan: I made the mistake of finding this add-on for my browser where it will collate all of your open tabs into a long list. And I actually checked, I too do the two screens during the day, and one of them is over 10,000 tabs and running, which I mean, I'm sure I'm gonna read all those articles one of these days.
Mike: You could knock that out in a weekend.
Siobhan: Oh, yeah. So I raise this because today we're gonna be talking about information overload. We're gonna be talking about those 10,000 unread articles on your web browser. And we've got a really great person to speak about it. His name is David Lavenda. He's been writing for us at CMSWire and now Reworked for many years and he is an international scholar for the Society for the History of Technology. He's also a product expert with extensive experience leading information intensive technology organizations, but his academic research focuses on the history of information overload. So I am really looking forward to having David come on, discuss these things, and maybe help me with my web browser problem. Are you ready, Mike?
Mike: I'm ready.
Siobhan: Let's Get Reworked.
So David, I was trying to figure out before we were recording how long you and I have been working together, and I think it might be coming up on a decade. Am I right, in that?
David Lavenda: I believe you are correct. Yes, I think 2011 I think was when we met.
Siobhan: That would do it. And throughout this time you have been writing first for CMSWire and now for Reworked. And what I always love about your articles is that you would put all of the phenomena in the tech world that was happening today within a greater historical perspective. I think you have written over 80 articles for us in total which is a lot of ground to cover. I highly recommend anyone listening to go and read some of David's articles, of course, after listening to this, but I wanted to just kind of jump in and ask you about the topic of the day information overload.
You have this historical perspective. So could you tell me is information overload a new phenomenon?
David: No, it's not a new phenomenon. What is interesting about information overload is that every generation thinks it's a new phenomenon. I wrote about this recently. "The Social Dilemma," which was a very popular Netflix movie or documentary, starting to say social media, "It's all different now. We've had these problems and we've never had it before."
And throughout history, every time a new information technology has been created or become popular, there's always been somebody who stepped in and said, "This time it's different. Before we were able to deal with all the information we had and now it's it's completely overwhelming." I think one of the best examples I found was this phenomenal book by Ann Blair from Harvard University called "Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age," which talks about information overload in the period just following the invention of the printing press. And in that she quotes a scholar who says, and I'll paraphrase it to make it sound a bit more modern, he writes the multitude of information which grows every day in a prodigious fashion will make the following centuries fall into a state as barbarous as that of the centuries that followed the fall of the Roman Empire.
Siobhan: That's pretty dire.
Mike: We can say it happened, right?
David: This was, you know, five, 600 years ago and we think this is a modern problem. So every generation, from some point forward has felt that they're dealing with a problem of information overload.
Siobhan: So David, you said something in your response where you said, every generation thinks that it can't be dealt with, which implies that every generation has worked out a way to deal with it. Is the same the case of today's information overload?
David: I think it is. I'm optimistic. What's interesting is when you see people talk about the new phase of information overload, at any stage of history there's always a reason for it. So the current reason, there's really two reasons that I've heard people give. One is the addictive nature of the way social media works on mobile devices, when you just can't put it down and you're just inundated with stuff coming out in four directions. So it's the addictive nature which is different this time that we haven't had before. And the the idea that AI is being used to target you, to hook you into keeping the app open or the browser open.
The other thing is, at the same is that it's unregulated. So and this is certainly a current topic now that's coming up, but government is starting to look at regulating some of the things that have gone on for a while unregulated, and this is pretty much the same in history at some point. There's some element that's different. Eventually things work themselves out and we move on. And I believe that that's what will happen this time as well.
Mike: David, are you of the camp that thinks the current state of information is rewiring our brains? A lot of the historical ways that we've talked about information overload, it took time to engage in information and really do something with it. As you mentioned, with the addictive nature of a lot of our platforms now that's actually making us engage at perhaps a little bit more shallow level. Do you feel like there's something substantial there?
David: This was popularized by the article "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" a number of years ago, about this idea of the shallowness of information. But I think in order to answer that question, we have to describe what we mean by information overload. So what do we mean by information? And what do we mean by overload?
So information can be a variety of different sources. For the purposes that we're talking about, it often has to do with some sort of decision-making capability. We're processing information in order to make a decision or generate an opinion of some sort. The overload element is really something which I think is misunderstood. Because we talk about overload, the immediate assumption is quantity. We're inundated, there's just too much stuff.
But there's really three elements that can create a feeling of overload. This is something that I wrote about in my master's thesis quite a bit, is that there is first of all, quantity, which is obvious — how much information we're getting. So you open up Facebook, you open up any of the other social media apps, you get podcasts, you get all sorts of stuff coming at you.
The other element is how much time you have to process the information. People don't think about this one quite as much. But if we take an extreme example, take somebody's physician in the emergency room or somebody comes in and they're in critical condition. There may not be a lot of information but you don't have much time to process it. And that idea of looking at the data as it comes in — somebody's vital signs — the limited amount of time you have to process it creates a feeling of overload. They have to do something quickly. You don't have time to look at everything that you've got.
And the third element, which is I think probably the least understood or at least talked about, is the quality of information. And by quality I don't mean whether it's news or fake news or who says the information, but oftentimes how we receive that information. Just to give you another example from a business perspective, you may get an email about something and you may have a Slack conversation or a Microsoft Teams conversation related to it, but they're not in the same channel, the same modality or medium and they may also not be talking the same language. That creates this cognitive overload, which is required cognitive effort that's required to be able to process that information because it's not in the same language. It's not talking necessarily about the same thing. In any of these three quantities, or any of these three parameters, mixed together is what creates that perception of overload.
Siobhan: Obviously, this is affecting us in our personal lives and dragging into our work lives as well. So we're getting it from all sides basically. We've got, as you mentioned, the Slack, the email and the Teams conversations. And then on the outside, we're getting the Facebook, we're getting the Instagram, we're getting all of the other stimulus. What effect does this have on us and in the workplace situation? How does this manifest?
David: There's been a number of studies that have shown the negative consequences. So one of the negative consequences from a business perspective is just bad decision making. If you don't process the information properly or you don't have time to, or the quality is difficult to decipher what to have in hand, the implication is that you're going to make a bad decision or a suboptimal decision. That's kind of the the simplest and most straightforward thing to understand.
The other point is that studies have shown that there's a stress, personal stress that's associated with information overload and that this feeling of being unable to cope, this pressure to respond quickly, there have been studies that have shown how quickly typically people will answer an email, how quickly people will answer instant messaging, and it's quite quick in both cases. And the implication there is that you're kind of always on edge. The bing on the phone or the pop up in the corner of the window, you feel like you've got to answer that and that creates a feeling of stress and a feeling of inability to cope with what you have. That has a downside in terms of personal relationships, in terms of well being. It's much more than just having to pile through a lot of information.
Siobhan: I'm just thinking now with the bing of the signals and all that, are we sort of Pavlov's dog for the modern age?
David: A lot of this addiction that we're talking about has come out of the Stanford School. There was a period of time about 20 years ago when the web started becoming popular. There's a very famous book called "Persuasive Technology," which is a book that describes how to keep people hooked on what they're doing at that time. It was before mobile devices but it's been extended. And there really is a psychology to how do you keep people engaged, how do you keep people unable to disconnect. And from a providers' perspective, that's great, you know, that keeping people on, selling more ads. From the individual's perspective of course, the perspective is quite different.
Mike: Coming back to the personal side of this, it seems like what it's really about is control of your time and attention, is what it comes down to. And feeling like you can process information in a way that is meaningful or relevant to you. I come from a family of newspaper readers, and I can remember, my mom would get the daily newspaper, and she would let them stack up. And then she would go through, she still does this actually, she will go through in sequential order the information of the week and process it. She felt like she had control of our information. But we've kind of got away from that as we've exploded the containers for information. We don't just get everything from the newspaper anymore. Now it comes from many different places. We've got this sort of explosion of control where we feel — I personally feel and perhaps others feel — not in control of our information environment. What are some things or tactics that you do to put some control around the information overflow that's around you?
David: Great question. But before I answer that, I want to raise the point you mentioned about reading the newspaper. So let's set the Wayback Machine to 1830, Mr. Peabody, and talk about the introduction of the newspapers, the penny press, when it became very popular. In the US, it's about the 1830s. And at that time, the papers used to be very expensive and then they all of the sudden became very inexpensive. And people all of a sudden were inundated and felt they didn't have control because of the amount of information that was being pushed out through newspapers. So you give the example of newspapers as a medium, which we are able to control. It's really just a perspective and a particular time in history that we've gotten a grip on that. So I just want him to give you an example of those things typically are cyclical. And I think we'll find the same things with some of the things that we're currently dealing with.
Mike: Yeah, it was always an illusion of control. Right? It was just, it just felt like we had it under control.
David: Correct. You just get used to it and then it doesn't seem like it's a thing anymore.
And you asked me about what I do. So I'm probably not the greatest example of organization. I do try but I think the kind of things that do help maintain control or help people get control, helped me gain control, is trying to reduce the number of places that information is coming from. I think in the workplace this is certainly the Holy Grail of not having to toggle between all the different apps that you have. You have email and you've got some of these instant messaging chats, now you've got these meeting applications with chat facilities, plus all the business apps that generate notifications and updates and so on.
So trying to reduce the amount of sources or trying to create increased the quality of information by combining it in a way that's meaningful, so that you have less to process is certainly a goal. I think one of the ways that I do this, I use Evernote, which is you know, like OneNote. You think this is a super modern invention. But if you go back to the Middle Ages, there was a concept called the "commonplace book," which was exactly the same thing. And what people do is they would — this is where cut and paste comes from — they would literally cut with the scissors the text that they wanted, they would paste it into a book, like under the topics that they had, and that would be their reference guide.
Now it's of course in the cloud and you have search, you have all sorts of ways of organizing tags, tagging information. I think that if there's anything that I could recommend, trying to reduce the number of sources and to combine the information. If people are able to do that, that is the big place. They've got a big advantage. Trying to reduce the amount of information that you actually have, unless somebody has an idea of how to create a machine that creates more time, I think the only lever we really have is is to work on the quality.
Siobhan: So David, you actually just gave me the perfect segue because I did want to get into some of the technology that's emerging to try and create that more concentrated source. One of the big ones was Viva Topics came out recently from Microsoft, and you did write about this. I know this is an area that you have been writing about, again for a while. You asked in an article if it was the first topic computing solution. And I was hoping you could explain a little bit about what a topic computing solution is and what you think of the potential of Viva Topics.
David: Topic computing is really just a way to present information to people in a way that we think. In general, we don't think about Slack or we don't think about Teams, we don't think about email messages. We generally think about things that matter to us. So it could be in a business context, it could be projects, or products or services that we're working on, or customers. In a personal context, it could be all sorts of things, family events, friends, all sorts of things that categorize and think about information. The idea of topic computing is to take all this information that we're trying to process on a daily basis and combine it in such a way that we can access it and look at it and process it and respond to it by topics.
I have an email about a project that I'm working on and I also have a bunch of documents about that project. I was in a meeting with people talking about that project and somebody else in the company I'm working in is working on that project. Instead of having to go in and start searching through all the different repositories or asking people, "Hey, does anybody know about this?" it would be a way to combine all those components, those different pieces of information into the context around the project. And then by selecting the project, I'd be able to find all related information to that.
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That's the overall idea of topic computing. I wouldn't say, again, it's not a super new idea. If we go back again to the Middle Ages, the commonplace book was organized by tags. Tags are really topics. People will manually cut and paste information by topics. The problem with it is even in the last maybe two decades, companies have tried to do manual projects where they're bringing professional services teams to try and organize and build a taxonomy within a company and organize information by port and topics. But it's it's really been cost prohibitive and quite complex not so much from a technology perspective, although that has also been a challenge. It's also from a conceptual problem. If you think about people in a company or any sort of social organization, everybody thinks about things slightly differently. So the question is, how do you create a common taxonomy that everybody agrees. And that's really where the the challenge has been up till now.
And you asked about Viva Topics, and if this is a breakthrough. So I think there's a couple of things that Viva Topics brings to the table that didn't exist before. So for example, a lot of the sources of information that need to be combined in a meaningful way happen to reside in the same cloud in the same data repository of the Microsoft Graph, which is a huge advantage, because it means that combining an email with a document with a Teams conversation is done in a way that the data can be put together within the same framework, as opposed to having to bring it from an outside source and figure out how to somehow reconcile the data.
The other advantage that's coming to the fore is some of this new technology related to the graph, the Microsoft Graph, which is a way of creating relationships between pieces of data based on who's interacting with it. So people might be working together in the same group and they're conversing about something, it might give some of those emails or documents a score related to what they're working on.
And of course, there's the issue of, or the potential of AI, which, you know, is going to save the world and do everything because that's what AI is, it's magic that can solve every problem.
Mike: Did we detect a note of sarcasm there?
David: A little bit. I think this is way overblown. And the idea is that there is no way that an artificial intelligence can put together something which people themselves don't agree on. If there's an issue of what is important in an organization or how information should be combined, just giving it over to a computer isn't going to work because really what these AI pieces are doing here is trying to combine the information in a way that ... there's training models where you can say A and B go together and then C and D go together and therefore if you see things related to that, they also go together and you move forward. But there has to be some sort of either a priori learning module that tells the system what to do or there's some sort of feedback loop that helps you improve or correct mistakes that that system makes before it can work better. And I think this is where we still have a lot of work to do because this is comes back to the human element. And I don't think that is quite solved yet.
Mike: When we figure out that, then a lot of our problems go away.
David: One of my favorite stories about this is we did a project a number of years ago with a very large federal agency that was trying to do a taxonomy project. I think they had 16 branches around the country and the CIO came and gave us a lecture about the project. And what she told us was that after four years, the committee had been able to agree on only four items that they all could agree on. One of those was the actual name of the document, or the whatever that piece of content was, the title they all agreed was something that they agreed was important. And the other one was the date that it was created. Beyond that, after four years they weren't able to come to consensus about how to classify their information.
Siobhan: Not a problem at all. So for something like the Viva Topics or a similar solution, not that there is a comparable one right now, to work does there have to be a certain element on the back end, obviously, of metadata input? So would these benefit from working with structured information only? Or I think the implication is it's also working with unstructured, but if we can't even agree on something beyond, say, the department name and the date, how is it going to do that? I guess that's basically what you're saying, David?
David: If you look at the first generation of what Microsoft tried to do with topic computing was SharePoint syntax. And the examples that Microsoft shows in the demos of how this works, it's no surprise that it's related to things that are more structured. So one is contracts and the other one is invoices. And of course, you know, if you look at an invoice, it's fairly simple to be able to imply what fields, where the information is, the customer name, the line item, the cost, these kinds of things. And it makes sense to start with things that are more structured, because it's an onion that we need to peel. Starting with something which is completely unstructured, things like long documents or emails, it's very difficult to be able to not only pick out the important topics but also to provide the proper context. So things like focusing on a particular vertical where words have a specific meaning in that particular instance or industry. These are the kind of things that will help bootstrap, getting this stuff to work because eventually if you can provide enough feedback, and the feedback is consistent enough, I do believe that this technology can eventually get to the point where it can associate different components, different pieces of data with topics that are important. And then when we reach that stage that'll be a game changer for how we process information.
Siobhan: Should we have any concerns turning this much power over to the magic of AI to decide what it is that we get to see?
David: Absolutely. I think certainly in the in the consumer space. Unfortunately, the definition of what we get to see has been what engages us. So without any sort of context, you know, that tends to lead to things that are more extreme and things that are probably not very good for us. So I think leaving that directly to the technology without any sort of guidance is a nightmare scenario. And we're seeing that play out in the consumer space, big time.
In the business space, I'm not quite sure it's the same element. The idea there is not engagement as much. You don't want to keep people stuck in email as long as you can because that naturally happens. You don't need to actually do anything to prod people to spend time there. It's not necessarily productive here. The idea is to present information in the most productive way, the most efficient way the most, helps you make the best decisions in the least amount of time. And here, I don't see any magic. I think that without human input that guides the system I just don't see how that's the going to work.
Siobhan: It just made me think though, David, there's an idea back when I was in library school about the serendipity that happens in libraries. So the learning that happens when you are looking at a specific book, but then noticing all of the books around it. And the surprising element that brings in and the new connections that you make through that. Is that lost in a solution like this?
David: So I've written about this in the past. I'm a big believer in that kind of engagement. I think that's what creates new types of innovation and solutions when bringing something which is completely unrelated or maybe not completely unrelated, but in some way you make a connection. That's what brings real innovation and I think there is a danger of losing that. I haven't done too much research on this but I have come across products that almost have planned serendipity, you know that kind of random generator that will show you things. I don't think that has the same kind of impact. And I do believe that's a big problem for getting new ideas. I don't think it's as much as a problem for productivity and efficiency, which is what usually managers and a lot of this technology is geared to, which is just, you know, less on coming up with creative solutions and more on just using what we've got to make better decisions. From a creative standpoint, I absolutely agree that that's going to be a big problem.
Mike: David, you bring up a good point that this really makes sense for certain things where you're focused on efficiency or you're focused on productivity. Creativity, innovation, maybe not so much although there's still some work to be done. What are the business areas? So I mean, if you're going in as a consultant to a business and saying, OK, here's the areas where I think something like a topic computing solution can work. Where do they make the most sense? Perhaps not right now in R&D where you're in maybe at least on the pointy end of R&D, where you're coming up with completely new ideas. But what are the business areas where this can have the most effect?
David: There's areas that have very well defined business process and business flow with common pieces of content. So again, going back to the example, it's no surprise that Microsoft started with things like invoices and contracts because those are things that are fairly easy to interpret. So if you look at things like account management where you have questions from clients coming in, and you may have, you know, specific types of documents that repeat themselves that are easy to place, I think, here's a way where you can use some of the technology to help make people aware of information that they may not be aware of. If you're working in a very large company, somebody else may be working with the same customer or in a similar customer. And there might be a similar document to what you need. This type of approach would help you find that type of document that you're looking for.
If you're trying to come up with an idea about how to solve something which has not been solved before, I don't think there's much value in this technology for that particular use. But squeezing out productivity from a lot of wasted time and effort in companies, particularly now where people are working less shoulder to shoulder and more remotely. I think here's where the idea is to try and help people be productive and efficient.
Mike: So is it sort of a proxy for those jobs that are being automated right now, would be the places where perhaps something like this makes the most sense.
David: And I think it's a moving target. The things that are most repetitive or most planned or you can you can chart out somehow those are the jobs that are becoming more automated. As we move along and we're able to correlate information better and better, more and more of those types of jobs will fall into that category. What's far away from that is that ideas come out of blue sky, or people come up with things that are connecting one particular area and proposing a solution and another area where people are not familiar with that type of solution. Those are things that I don't think AI in the near future has any place to play.
Siobhan: So until the magic of AI kicks in, are there specific practices that individuals could adopt, perhaps free of technology, or not necessarily with a broader technological solution to improve their focus and claim back their attention on a day-to-day basis?
David: Different things work for different people. I knows there's a lot of things about time management in general, or people tend to get sucked into looking at things and then two hours are gone, and you're behind. So helping people just stay focused or blocking out time during the day for different tasks.
One of the things that I find is quite helpful to me is just starting the day with a checklist — the list of what needs to be done today by priority. And it doesn't have to be anything super complicated. It's just kind of a collection of the things that pop up from different areas and put them on a list. And then just make sure that I'm focused on that for the day without getting pulled out. These are the kinds of things, these types of simple things you can you often see and these how to be productive lists. A lot of them do work. I said different things work for different people. But I find not checking email all day, every five minutes, just a few times a day, keeping windows closed if you're trying to focus on creative work so you don't have those distractions popping up, turning off the phone when you need to do deep thinking. Kind of, you know, back-to-basics approach.
As I said before, people always think that there's things that are different now that's never happened before. Bu the human is wired, it may we may be that our wiring is changing but we're still basically the same human species. So what often worked in the past will work in the present as well.
Mike: So if I'm hearing you correctly, David, the 30 tabs I have open in my browser is not perhaps the most productive way for me to engage with my work.
David: Probably not. On the other hand, if you asked me about zero inbox I don't think that that's necessarily a solution either because the information that's stored in the inbox, you know, some people use inbox as just a another repository for the information. It's going to go somewhere. And again, it's not the question of whether it's email or it's something else. It's how many different sources of information, how correlated are those sources of information so that you can use it intelligently. So you know, getting spread out over too many different places, having too many interruptions, too many distractions, all those things are just not only productivity killers but they really do create that stress just getting through the day. So all those things are really not good ideas.
Siobhan: I'm laughing over here, David, because this sort of joking way of talking about distraction is like, "Squirrel!" And I literally have a family of squirrels who's been hanging out outside my window as I work lately, and I'm just like, is this some kind of weird signal?
David: The question is whether any of the squirrels are holding mobile devices when they're staring into the window.
Siobhan: Then we're gonna be concerned. So David, we do a little thing called underrated/overrated where we throw out a topic at you and you tell us if you think it's underrated or overrated. You can share a little bit of background if you want or you can just answer the question flat out. Are you willing to play the game with us?
David: OK, where's Carol Merrill standing? By the ...
Siobhan: She is right by the display. i think you win a refrigerator for this one if you play.
David: Better a refrigerator than a goat.
Siobhan: So underrated or overrated, Vannevar Bush?
David: I think underrated. He had tremendous insight. I think his solution was obviously, people familiar with the idea of the Memex that he came up with back in the mid 20th century was a way to deal with information overload. It was based on current technology so we can't really criticize him for it. But he had certainly seen that there needs to be a way to put information together in such a way we can process it. And his idea was topic computing. And it was to create the tags to tag articles mostly related to scientific information so that you could retrieve information by tags. Underrated because I don't think enough people know about his work.
Siobhan: His name is held in high reverence in every library program everywhere. So I can tell you his name is being carried on by all the librarians out there.
Mike: I'm glad you explained that one because I did not know who Vannevar Bush was. So thank you for that, Siobhan. Alright, David, the idea of asynchronous collaboration. As people get lost in their email, as people are sucked into different ways, as their attention gets sucked away in different ways, do you feel like the idea of collaboration that is done asynchronously is overrated or underrated?
David: Overrated. The reason it's become popular is because the other channels have become noisy. And this one is not as noisy. But once this becomes noisy, I will be talking about the next thing.
Siobhan: So next up, we have information ethics.
David: An oxymoron.
Siobhan: Doesn't exist?
David: It does exist. I think, again, it comes back to the human element. Certainly we've seen companies who treat information with zero ethics. There's others who try and say that they're trying to do something about it. But it comes down to the the human-ness. Whenever there's an incentive to behave incorrectly, people generally will and that's on us to make sure that that's done properly.
Mike: So the idea of deep work is that underrated or overrated. It's become popularized. I'm thinking particular in the case of Cal Newport, who is a professor and wrote a book called "Deep Work" about how we need to kind of break ourselves out of the shallowness of the way that we think a lot. Do you feel like this idea of deep work is being underrated or overrated?
David: That's a tough one to answer. I think that it's a spin on something which is very important to get work done. I'm not sure it's something new. I think what Cal Newport is doing is highlighting something which is very important. Maybe it is underrated because people haven't spent enough attention on it. The focus primarily has been on productivity and efficiency, which come down to dealing with business processes which are repetitive things that we can plan ahead with, and deep work goes back to the creative side of things. And I do believe particularly as AI and machine learning become more and more prevalent in the types of products and services that we have, the advantage of the human being able to do deep thinking and connect the dots between things that may be unrelated is where we have our advantage going forward. So I think maybe it is underrated.
Mike: Yeah, that's definitely the place where I think people would say that AI and machine learning is going to be useful. It's that it takes away a lot of the the sort of hamster-on-a-wheel thinking that we need to do and really gives us the ability to think more creatively. But we need to be able to separate ourselves from the technology and find that Zen-like space in order to have those sort of thoughts and that sort of thinking. So there's a little bit of a double edged sword there.
David: Right? Yeah. And then the hamster and the squirrel might get together and then we be in trouble.
Siobhan: Especially if they all get cell phones.
David: They don't need cell phones, they just need to be wired into the same social media. And then we're all good to go.
Siobhan: So, David, we've got two more for you. The next one is taking a tech cleanse, completely unplugging from the tech world, underrated or overrated?
David: Tough one to answer. I think it's underrated. But I think the question is what you mean by it. If it's a periodic thing, there's a really good book written a number of years ago by a guy named William Powers called "Hamlet's Blackberry," I think it was called.
Mike: I love that.
David: Very good book. And he talks about trying to create this time, once a week or something, that the family would disconnect to try and be together and so on. I'm a big believer in that. That's a huge idea. Practice that myself. And I think that that is replenishing. I think there has to be some sort of natural state to it, though. I think if it's artificial it's very easy to break that. There's always some event that comes up that's more important, that we won't do it this time, and so on. I think people who try and look at this, I'm going to go somewhere for a week and disconnect or something has a very short term impact. I think, you come back, it comes back and hits you pretty quickly. But anytime where you can disconnect for a period of time I think is is positive. So maybe underrated.
Siobhan: Last one for you, David, we have met many times over the years, usually because you have a suitcase someplace in midtown Manhattan, we had a cup of coffee, and then you got on your next mode of transportation. So last one for the underrated or overrated, getting on a plane every week?
David: I'm not quite sure how to phrase this. Right now, there's a lot of people talking about how much we've discovered that we don't need to travel in order to be able to be productive and work remotely. And I think we're going to see the dark side of that soon. I mean, certainly in a time of a pandemic when it's a life-saving measure it's important to do. But there is certainly an important component of face-to-face connectivity as well. There was a recent article that was in the FT called "The Ticking Time Bomb Inside the New World of Work." And one of the findings that they quoted [was a] study saying that people who work remotely and don't have the face-to-face contact with managers tend to be promoted less. And if you think about that, people who tend to work remote or may in the future have less face-to-face contact with people will tend to be people who, young mothers perhaps, and then you're looking at that, it becomes another element of discrimination, potential discrimination, for people who prefer working remote but are at a disadvantage.
So I think this idea of maybe getting on a plane every week is not the solution. But never getting on a plane to meet people is not the solution, either. I think there has to be a mix of it. Because the face-to-face communication is not just trust building and building empathy with people, it's also a lot of the creative type of thinking and ideation that's very difficult to do on things like Zoom and Teams. It's really rough to to connect with people at that level.
Mike: So just like many things, it's a balance that we're gonna end up striking. And then we'll move on to the next phase of business and the next phase of life.
David: That's it, there's always a disruption. And this disruption is a big opportunity for change and a lot of people benefit from that. But eventually, we reach a steady state and some sort of equilibrium. And then there's another disruption. And you're exactly right. I think that's the same for information overload. It's the same for how we work. It's the same for technology. This is just the nature of the way things work.
Mike: So David, if people want to find out more about you and your work, where would you recommend they go?
David: You can find me on LinkedIn, of course, my articles in Reworked and in CMSwire, goes without saying. I write occasionally on Medium under my own channel. We're talking about information overload, I don't want to give too many channels because we're right back to where we started.
Mike: We will set up a topic in Viva, David Lavenda.
David: I'm not sure I can agree with that. Because maybe we should use the first name, or the last name. I'm not sure how we should categorize that.
Mike: We can spend four years thinking about that one.
David: We can get the committee together but they have to be face to face. So we have to fly them out so they won't be able to do it over Zoom.
Mike: Well, this is this has been great, David. I appreciate you coming on. Thank you so much.
Siobhan: David, thank you. And I have to say I think this is the first podcast episode where I'm walking away with a syllabus. I've been taking furious notes of all the references you've made throughout. So thank you for my reading for the next week.
Mike: We'll have lots of this information that David has shared here in our show notes, so definitely go to Reworked.co and check it out. David, thanks so much for joining us today.
David: Pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me.
Siobhan: Thanks, David.
Mike: So Siobhan, that was actually my first time talking to David. I know you've known him for a few years. But my definitely my first time. There's a lot to unpack in there. What stood out to you from that?
Siobhan: For me, is his hopefulness about the fact that we can actually overcome this. It honestly does feel on many days like it's an insurmountable problem. So the fact that he has the historical perspective, and that he can say, you know, kind of hold our hands and say, "Don't worry, we'll get through this together." That is fantastic. And, and I think one other point is just when he talks about the effects on us of the information overload and the bad decisions that we make, and the stress that we feel as a result. I think that that is part of the reason why so many companies are now trying to solve this problem. How about you, Mike?
Mike: Yeah, definitely love the historical perspective. I mean, just the idea of the commonplace book, that a lot of these things that we've been, we struggle with, we tend to think that they're unique to us but they've been going on forever. Right after the printing press came out, people were complaining about all these books. Look at all these books, how am I going to keep up with all these books and then when radio came out, it's like, Oh, the radio's on again tonight. There's just too many shows to keep up with. It's just sort of like, it's just the same thing with the next iteration. So it's always nice to kind of have that historical perspective, that it may feel in the moment very difficult to deal with but hey, this is an adjustment and we as humans, this is what we do. We adjust and we move forward. It might not be comfortable at the time. But definitely is is always progress forward. So that was was definitely heartening.
Siobhan: We can all take a collective deep breath now, I think.
Mike: Alright, Siobhan, good to talk to you. So I will send you an email later so we can schedule our next podcast, yeah?
Siobhan: Yeah, I'll respond in Slack.
Mike: Yep. And then we'll set up a Zoom call to set up for our next Google Meet for that one. How about that?
Siobhan: Sounds perfect. Can't wait, can't wait.
Mike: We encourage you to drop us a line at [email protected]. If you have a suggestion or a topic for a future conversation, we are all ears. Additionally, if you like what you hear, please post a review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you may be listening. And be sure to share Get Reworked with anyone that you think might benefit from these types of conversations. And then finally, be sure to follow us at Get Reworked on Twitter as well.
Thank you again for exploring the revolution of work with us and we'll see you next time.
About the Authors
Siobhan is the editor in chief of Reworked, where she leads the site's content strategy, with a focus on the transformation of the workplace. Prior to joining Reworked, Siobhan was managing editor of Reworked's sister site, CMSWire, where she directed day-to-day operations as well as cultivated and built its contributor community. Connect with Siobhan Fagan: