Floating in the Information Stream

I read this article with great interest: Is Online Noise Really Bad for You? (from RWW). It’s actually a reprint (with updates) of a previous article, but I had missed it the first time. I’ve written about information glut before, and I regularly struggle with impending overload, but this article reminded me of a different perspective, equally important

This is the paragraph that made me sit up and take notice:

“The ability to recall passively collected information that was gathered purposelessly in the past and put it to use in the future is a particularly powerful form of intelligence. A person with a substantial reservoir of generally relevant information is a great person to have on any team.”

Because, in fact, I’ve known for a while that one of the ways I approach problem solving (if it can really be called an approach) is by somehow synthesizing ambient knowledge. The reason I’m hesitant to call this “an approach” is that you really can’t predict or control the process, but by this method I have, over the years, spontaneously solved a number of problems that I really had no business solving.

For example, once I diagnosed a mysterious problem my friend was having with his car, which kept stalling after he’d been driving it for a while. Without ever looking under the hood, I said, “The fan’s probably broken and the engine’s overheating.” My friend was amused when he took the car to the garage and the mechanics discovered exactly what I had predicted.

How did I know this?

  1. His car was so quiet that he had, on occasion, gotten out and locked it while the engine was still running.
  2. I had a friend in high school whose car had a broken fan. He had gotten the car in the winter, but didn’t notice that there was a problem until summer, when the car would regularly stall after the engine had been on for a bit and had heated up. His car was also unusually quiet.

For some reason these two random experiences, spaced many years apart, connected in my mind and I figured out what the problem was, despite knowing almost nothing about the inner workings of car engines. That example is relatively easy to trace, but most of the time it’s a lot less clear what bits of obscure knowledge are being called into play.

I recently started using Google Reader, after a recommendation from a friend. I had tried various RSS reading tools before and found them lacking in different ways. One of the most compelling things about Google Reader is that I can access my feeds from any browser, from any machine. This makes it a lot more likely that I will check in at my convenience, when I have a moment to spare. It’s also pretty easy to use, and has some handy management features.

As I collected up my subscriptions, I was more prudent about what feeds I added. I held off on adding all the feeds that I thought I should read, and just added ones that I thought I would actually look at on a regular basis. The feeds started filling in, and already I’m not keeping up with them (RWW, I’m looking at you!), but almost immediately I felt smarter. I’m not joking. I found myself, in meetings, calling up recent developments in the related topic and offering to send out a link. In both my personal and professional life, I was already familiar with things people were bringing up in conversation.

I think I still have to figure out the right balance between browsing and reading, to keep the feeds from piling up. RWW would probably say that I’m still trying to control and filter the RSS experience too much. Maybe, as a blogger called Stetoscope commented on the article I mentioned at the beginning, the key is letting go of that guilty feeling that we’re supposed to read everything. Can we retrain ourselves to float along in the information stream and just see where it takes us?

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