Monday, October 13, 2014

Information Therapy: Supply and Demand

Early in the MLIS program I was introduced to the concept of thinking about information in economic terms. The first law of supply and demand economics, says that if demand increases for a given commodity and its supply remains unchanged, a shortage occurs, leading to a higher price for that product.

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Information is a tricky commodity because you can sell it or give it away and still possess it. And as we all know, in today’s society it is plentiful. In the information economy the really valuable commodity is our attention. Demand increases for it every day but our supply remains unchanged. No matter how well we think we can multi-task, our ability to absorb information has its limits.

About 12-13 years ago I heard about a study that found the average amount of information crossing the desk of an administrative assistant in a typical day would take at least eight hours to read – without a bathroom break. I have not been able to find that study to verify the data, but I believe that if we actually spent time reading everything – email, printed brochures, interoffice memos, letters, bills, etc. that comes our way in a typical workday we would get nothing done. And that doesn’t take into account phone calls, voice messages, texts, scheduled meetings, and other face-to-face conversations.

So what do we do about it?

Our brains find ways to cope – but not always positively. In the process we can create a cluttered work environment for ourselves. Case in point: When I have already used up a lot of attention I have been known to simply close a document, click Save (hopefully,) and agree to whatever filename and location the program suggests. Consequently, I don’t know where the work went, I might end up doing the same work again later, and I now have multiple files named “Book 1.xls” in a number of different subfolders.

Last month I read an article in AARP Magazine, in which professional organizer, Barbara Reich, describes how she works with clients to “declutter” their lives. She says, “Clutter is stress: It nags at you, drags you down psychologically, slows you down physically.”(1)

It spoke to me on several levels.

Reich encourages people to downsize, simplify, and minimize the amount of stuff they have in their homes. Given the frequency of complaints I hear from colleagues, students, friends, family, and strangers about how hard it is to "keep track of everything," I believe this applies to digital clutter as well.

Consider how easy it is to save multiple copies of virtually the same document with slight filename variations. Now imagine having 10 blenders in your kitchen. They each have unique capabilities but which one is perfect for today’s breakfast smoothie? I don’t have enough counter space for more than one at a time, but I had two in my cupboard until this week. (As I was packing to move, I was inspired to simplify and now only have one.)

In the virtual world, it is much easier to have the equivalent of 10 (or more) blenders hidden away in the cupboard. Digital storage space seems nearly infinite and it seems impossible to run out of room. But this freedom to proliferate allows us to create immense haystacks in which to hide needles from ourselves.

Last week Information Systems replaced my office computer with a new PC. In preparation, I moved files from my local hard drive to a safe temporary location to be transferred to my new computer later. I did not take the time to figure out what was important and what was not. I was being a good steward of my time by saving everything.

This brings me back to the professional organizer's advice about physical clutter,

’It takes 20 to 30 hours to organize a house. If you think you’re going to spend five minutes here and there, it will be undone in a minute.’ Instead, put a few hours on your calendar, she says, and honor the commitment the way you would a doctor’s appointment. Then, play some music, enlist a friend to help, pour some wine—whatever works so you get cracking. Sort things into three piles—keep, toss and donate—and tackle what makes you most bonkers first. ‘After that,’ Reich says, ‘your anxiety level will drop exponentially and it’s amazing how motivated you are to keep going.’

Can we apply this to our office spaces, desktops, file drawers, email inboxes, and computer files?

Even when forced to, I can testify that it is easier said than done. It was fairly quick and easy to move all of my files from my old hard drive files to a new folder without much thought. I can sort it out later. The clutter remains.

At home, it is tempting to box everything up and likewise transport my clutter to the new home. But it is an opportune time to make some hard decisions, clear the deck, and resolve to keep things under control hereafter. The "hereafter" will require a change in lifestyle to go along with my change in venue. We shall see.

Addressing the virtual clutter on my computer is harder mental work. It is more complicated to analyze the value of information than the virtues of different blender options. And, of course, the files on my computer are just a small percentage of the information for which I feel I must give attention.

The challenge is to put my short supply of attention to use on the things that are of value to me. This requires giving time and attention to values clarification.

Whether I like it or not, information therapy takes time and attention.

(1) Dunn, Jancee. “Declutter Your Life – Now!” AARP Magazine (August/September 2014) pp. 38-47. Vol. 57, No. 5A (Digital version:

Robin Hartman is Director of Library Services at Hope International University. She is curious about how the organization and communication of information shapes society and is committed to equipping students to impact the world for Christ.

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