I was watching “A Beautiful Mind” recently and was struck how much the mathematician John Nash’s schizophrenia, as portrayed in the movie, was like my online life: Ethereal voices constantly impinging on my attention, demanding responses, distracting me from the work (and people) at hand. Only in my case it’s email messages, not hallucinations.

I don’t use instant-messaging software as a rule, and one reason I don’t is that it only exacerbates this “interruptive” condition of online life. Email itself is distracting enough that I’ve had to take serious measures to control its impact (filters, schedules, spam guards, and more). Yet I can’t rule it out entirely. As with many people, email is the way I work. It’s the primary way I communicate with the people I work with and those I’m interviewing. It’s one of the major channels through which I learn about new ideas and technologies. I can’t just turn it off any more than I can quit my job and go spend the winter meditating in a mountain retreat.

Then there was Nash’s office: During the height of his illness, he had plastered the walls with hundreds of pages torn from various magazines, highlighting random words and letters here and there, drawing lines from one thing to another. The whole space was a vast, tangled map of mental connections, embodied in paper and ink and string. Holy crap, I thought: That’s a weblog in physical form!

Times sure change. In the 1950s, making such obsessive connections between scraps of publicly available media was a sure sign of insanity. Now it’s practically a requirement. The experts agree: Maintaining a weblog is a good way to promote yourself and your business. [1]

Naturally, these experts are all famous webloggers. As for how the rest of the hoi polloi are justifying the hours they spend on their digital diaries when only a handful of people will ever read them — well, the results are still out on that one.

(Actually, Chris Gulker has analyzed the most popular weblogs and has found that being famous already will help your blog be popular, but having a blog won’t necessarily help you become famous. [2] So much for the self promotional values of weblogging.)

Indeed, as technology becomes more pervasive, there’s an unfortunate down side. Unless you learn to master the technology around you, it can easily take over your daily life — without you being particularly aware that this is happening. Email is distracting. The infinite interconnectedness of the Web means there’s always something more to learn — you’re never quite finished with anything because there’s always one more link to investigate, one more fact to incorporate.

And, as InfoWorld columnist Ephraim Schwartz wrote last month, mobile technology isn’t exactly helping, either. Rather, those Web-enabled mobile phones and Blackberries let us to keep working far beyond the hours and places where work used to be confined. [3]

Think back to what your world was like before you got Web access and Internet email. For me, it’s hard even to imagine what things were like — that’s how much I’ve come to rely on these technologies, how much they’ve transformed our world. By and large, this is a good thing. But I think there’s a growing gap between personal technologies and our ability to manage them effectively.

My column for Business 2.0 this week discusses the obsolescence of Moore’s Law, and points out that processing power isn’t really a driving concern in the technology world nowadays (outside of the board rooms of Intel and AMD). [4]

Instead, the big problems facing IT departments — and, increasingly, ordinary individuals — have to do with information management. How do you store, maintain, organize, and make accessible large amounts of data?

I think we’re fast approaching the point where our tools’ ability to bring us information exceeds our ability to manage and make use of that information. At this point, what we need is less information, not more: We need filters, categories, classifications. Editors. Friends. Good work habits and business processes. All of these things we need in order to take control of the information that surrounds us — and to take control of our online lives.

In other words, we need to control technology before it controls us.


[1] Doc Searls on the evolution and benefits of his weblog

[2] Chris Gulker analyzes the most popular weblogs

[3] Ephraim Schwartz on wireless work

[4] Dylan Tweney on the meaning and end of Moore’s Law

Link: Less is Moore.

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