Bit Literacy: Productivity in the Age of Information and E-mail Overload
Chapter 1: Bits
Bits are heavy. Though they have no physical weight, bits - the electronic data that flows in and out of our e-mail inboxes, cell phones, Web browsers, and so on - place a weight on anyone who uses them. A laptop computer weighs the same few pounds whether it holds one e-mail or a thousand, but to the person who has to deal with all those e-mails, there is a big difference. Appearing in large numbers as they often do, bits weigh people down, mentally and emotionally, with incessant calls for attention and engagement.
Bits are appearing everywhere today, and people are feeling the strain. E-mail traffic has increased, computers and other devices have proliferated, new acronyms and technology terms have invaded our speech, and many people can sense that there's a problem. It's all too much. "Information overload" is discussed at the water cooler, bemoaned in the press. The global economy is full of overloaded workers who are more weighed down, less productive, and ultimately less happy as human beings because of too many bits, and no solution for dealing with them. From CEOs to schoolteachers, designers to doctors, students to retirees, millions of people around the globe have an immediate need to solve their bit overload.
The problem can be solved by learning bit literacy, a new set of skills for managing bits. Those who attain these skills will surmount the obstacles of overload and rise to the top of their professions, even as they enjoy a life with less stress, greater health, and more time for family and friends. Bit literacy makes people more effective today, even as it equips them for the future.
But most users have no idea that they need to learn new skills, since they already know how to use the computer. For a long time, users have only been taught "computer literacy," the set of common actions in software: clicking buttons, selecting menus, opening and closing files. These skills were sufficient in the pre- Internet world of the 1980s, when computers were mostly used as glorified typewriters. But those skills are sorely inadequate in the age of bits. That old worldview is obsolete.
Today the computer and all its software are much, much less important than the bits that they operate on. Bits, after all, are no longer caged inside the computer. They flow - from computers to other computers and devices of all kinds, surging across the Internet in wild arcs at every moment; flowing out of computers, out of cameras, out of phones, out of PDAs, and into inboxes, onto Web pages, onto hard drives, momentarily at rest, awaiting their next trip across the world. Bits, not software, are what's most important today.
The world has changed, but most people haven't caught up yet. Millions of technology users are trying to survive in the new world of bits with only the skills of computer literacy. They know how to send an e-mail and print a document, but they're powerless against the avalanche of incoming bits. Without managing their bits, users are constantly buried; not because bits are a bad or destructive force (far from it), but because users aren't applying the right skills or the right mindset.
Despite having occupations outside the technology field, many people are finding their daily work and life greatly affected by their relationship to bits. I recently met a woman who works as an analyst for a large non-profit organization, focusing on global poverty. She is well outside the technology field, and yet she constantly feels distracted and overloaded by bits. She told me that she feels the need to check e-mail whenever she gets home from work, and on weekends and vacations, too. Her case is not unusual. Bits have invaded practically every occupation, nearly every aspect of communication, commerce, logistics, and entertainment. Bits have arrived, they're not going away, and we must learn how to live with them.
Some people mistakenly try to engage all the bits, all the time, with an "always-on" lifestyle. For example, a familiar sight in airports these days is Busy Man. He's the one with the latest device in hand, scrolling through messages, or barking into a cell phone as he dashes through the terminal, oblivious to everyone and everything around him - the picture of stress and anxiety. On some level, Busy Man likes acting this way because it proves he's important. The more bits he drowns in, the more urgent his work becomes; and urgency, to him, equates to importance. It also offers him a good excuse if he misses a meeting or acts rudely - he was "maxed out," after all, when it happened. Despite how it may appear, working in such a way is neither effective nor sustainable. Urgency and haste are not the way to manage bits properly.
Other people react passively to the influx of bits in their lives, perhaps not even aware of it as an issue to address. No one taught them differently, so they can't be blamed for acquiescing, idly watching their inbox fill up with thousands of e-mails. But passivity is not a solution. As bits accumulate, the user gradually begins to feel out of control, never quite caught up. More bits demand more time and attention: more e-mails to scan, more websites to read, more files cluttering the desktop. And so the user, feeling overloaded with work, begins to hand over some family time to the bits - checking e-mail during dinner, twiddling the BlackBerry during the kids' soccer game.
For both Busy Man and the passive user, the problems stem from not knowing or acknowledging the weight of bits. Bits are heavy whether you consume too many or try to ignore them. They have other attributes, too, that are worth knowing. These attributes reveal bits to be a brand new material, bringing with them new challenges and opportunities. Like paper, or steel, or gunpowder, bits must be fully understood, and respected, if they are to be used to any advantage.
As a comparison, consider the qualities of paper, the material that bits are often meant to replace. Paper has been carrying data for thousands of years, plenty of time for people to understand its many advantages, like low cost and durability. A spiral notebook - bought for a few cents - can hold a stack of handwritten notes, and yet if it's dropped on the floor, the words stay on the page (unlike, say, a document on a laptop). What's more, the paper can remain intact for decades or more, never needing an upgrade. Paper requires no energy source but ambient light for readability.
Paper also occupies physical space, which allows for an elegant "user interface": turning pages and writing words are easy and intuitive, and accompanying technologies like staples and bookmarks are always compatible. Physical size gives paper another benefit: overload is hard to ignore. A big stack of reports, bills, or magazines may sit in plain sight on a table, or a desk, until it's carried away - at which time the physical weight gives another reminder of its quantity. Overload by paper is certainly possible, but at least it is accompanied by familiar real-world properties.
An obvious disadvantage of paper, though, is the time, energy, and material it requires for production and transportation. Paper is a very particular blend of atoms: some harvested from trees, others synthetically made and slathered on as inks and glues. The resulting combination (a stack of newspapers, say) requires yet more expensive atoms, to burn as fuel, in order to move the vehicle carrying the paper atoms to their destination.
Bits are different from paper in almost every way. For one thing, they don't kill trees. Although computer hardware can be poisonous to the environment, the bits themselves are just made of electrons: tiny impulses with no physical weight, taking up no appreciable space. This is an amazing benefit: a practically infinite amount of information can be stored without any increase in physical space or weight! And transmission speeds allow bits to travel across the world within seconds, powered only by the electricity required to send the signal. It's easy to create large quantities, too. With a single click, an e-mail newsletter or website update can reach hundreds of thousands of people in seconds - no printing press or delivery truck required. And once in the e-mail inbox, or on the Web page, the bits will display exactly the same words and graphics, in exactly the same colors, year in and year out, never fading, until they're deleted.
Bits have unique properties, then, that we can use to our advantage: they're super-small, super-fast, easily acquired and created and copied and shared in near-infinite quantity, protected from the ravages of time, and free from the limitations of distance and space. In practice, though, bits reveal several paradoxes: they're weightless, but they weigh us down; they don't take up any space, but they always seem to pile up; they're created in an instant, but they can last forever; they move quickly, but they can waste our time. (Compared to the wide organic diversity of atoms, which come in all sizes and configurations, bits are limited to two states: 1 or 0, on or off. Maybe it's the close proximity of opposites that causes such frequent paradox in the bit world.) Avoiding or ignoring these paradoxes inevitably brings on overload; bit literacy teaches you how to accept and work with them, in order to take control of your bits.
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