Monday, November 07, 2011

Save Time to Think

In his essay, “No Time to Think,” David M. Levy describes the brilliance of Vannever Bush – a man who is credited with predicting hypertext, personal computers, and the Internet long before they were imaginable by most of the scientific community. In a famous essay, “As We May Think,” published by The Atlantic Monthly in 1945, Bush wrote about his ideas for a speedier resolution to the world's biggest problems (such as nuclear destruction). The key, as he envisioned it, was the mechanization of routine research tasks, freeing the scientist to give more time to thinking deeply and creatively about important things.

Now we cannot imagine doing research without these technologies. Levy points out, however, that there is a fallacy in Bush's hypothesis.
“While these new technologies do make it remarkably efficient and easy to search for information and to collect masses of potentially relevant sources on a huge variety of topics, they can't, in and of themselves, clear the space and time needed to absorb and reflect on what has been collected.”
Bush was not a librarian, but his idea certainly fits with The Fourth Law of Library Science: Save the time of the reader. Unfortunately, it turns out that we readers don't use the extra time to think. Instead, we suffer from information overload and “mind chatter” obstructing our creativity.

The problem is not having enough information, but it's not paying enough attention.

We hear a lot about Attention Deficit Disorders these days, but I resonate more with what author/commentator, Linda Stone, calls a state of Continuous Partial Attention. This is when people pay partial attention continuously in an effort not to miss anything. “It is always on, anywhere, anytime, anyplace behavior that involves an artificial sense of constant crisis.”[1] And, as she puts it, contributes to “a compromised ability to reflect, to make decisions, and to think creatively.”

So what do we do about it? Stone suggests that to free our minds for innovative thought, “we need to move from simply managing our time to managing our attention.” In fact, she says that “attention is the most powerful tool of the human spirit.” (The Attention Project) No wonder I feel that everyone wants a piece of it!

Stone says that to be free to think creatively, we need to turn technology off and give full uninterrupted attention to activities, to others, and to communicating fully. [2]

Levy says we need to reduce mind chatter and train our minds to increase concentration skills. This may not guarantee the stimulation of creative thought, but it makes it easier to hear them when they arise.

The lesson for academia is to stop Googling long enough to set aside some time to absorb what these wonderful time saving tools can bring.

I am taking a vacation this week. My sister was coming to visit from Michigan but she can't come after all. Now I have time off at home without any plans. I don't see myself turning off technology altogether, but I did promise the library staff that I would not send them email unless it was for fun. (They need a break from me!) But they should expect some "innovative" ideas when I return!

[1] Havens, Andy and Tom Storey. “Innovation Gaps” Next Steps, No. 18. p. 7.
[2] Ibid.

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