The Interest Stack and Attention Debt

Me in 2003, deep in thought watching the Cambodia jungle.
Me in 2003, deep in thought, watching the Cambodian jungle, back when life was simple.

Levels of analysis is a way of studying a political problem from (generally) three different perspectives: individual, state, and the international system. Using this framework I started examining my interests — all of the things I keep tabs on and projects I am involved in outside of my day job. There are a lot, and I fear I might have to go on another information diet. This is simply an exercise in mapping all the directions my brain is being pulled in a at once. Once that is achieved, I can better apply the scalpel to gain back more time to think.

Lining my interests up by scale like some sort of technology stack I came up with the following categories:

  • Individual
  • Family
  • Community
  • Citizen
  • Global
  • Space

Here is a breakdown of each one:
Continue reading “The Interest Stack and Attention Debt”

Breaking fast

This is a follow-up post to Information Fast where I pledged to constrain my information intake for the month of September in an experiment.

Let’s start with a brief after action report:

Fast results

I consumed no football, nor any of the punditry. I have no idea what is happening to Spurs or the Whitecaps. I didn’t scroll through Tumblr, Google+, Hacker News or the like. I posted to Twitter and G+ a few times as a broadcast medium (mainly links to my blog posts), and replied to mentions, but gave up my morning and evening catching-up of the stream. I was successful in my use of App.net and enjoyed it. I watched only three movies this month, two with my daughter. I watched four TV episodes (BrBa) which I just started this weekend. This could be a problem going forward…

Failures

I wasn’t able to stick to one non-fiction book. The reason is the book I picked up at the beginning of the month was an actual paper book. It is nearly a month later and I still haven’t broken the 100 page mark. It is far too difficult to get in the right context to read a paper book for me. Ebooks on the other hand can be read anywhere. It was one of the main reasons for getting a Galaxy S3: the size of the display is very comfortable to read on. I was able to blast through a few eBooks this month including The Information Diet and Startup Communities. All the while, my poor paper book languishes on the mantle.

A partial failure was podcasts. Although I limited myself to a single podcast, I did not listen to one episode. This was because there were no episodes that interested me (Star Trek and Journey?) or others that I want to check the source material first (Small Change, Doctor Who) I didn’t listen to one episode this month. I think this contributed to my consumption of non-fiction audiobooks (see my review of Future Tense).

Conclusion

Overall, this experiment was a success. I found myself with much more time to think, and even kindled in me a thirst for knowledge that I haven’t felt for a long time. Before, I was consuming much more information, but I was not synthesizing it into healthy knowledge. Basically: empty calories. By choosing carefully and thinking about what I consume, my brain muscle feels stronger after only a few weeks.

One thing that makes me happy is that my blog output has increased. I did not put out a ton of posts (mostly due to me spending time converting my blog to Octopress and redesigning my personal site), but later in the month I was able to write some substantial pieces. In all I wrote about 3800 words for the blog this month (including this post). That is a huge increase.

I did feel out of the loop concerning All Things Apple, especially since the launch of the iPhone 5. But it was actually refreshing. I have lived that life non-stop for five years. I think I can let other people take over for me now.

Next steps

So, the fast is over. Now to construct a healthy information diet. As mentioned above I am starting Breaking Bad finally, which means I will have to watch that I don’t fall back on passive consumption rather than reading at night again. I also have the new season of Doctor Who queuing up as I write this. I must be vigilant or my “attention fitness” will suffer.

As for taking Clay Johnson’s advice, I am considering a few things:

  1. Twitter: I quite enjoyed just using it just for broadcast, but I might try bringing reading back by only checking the Tweets of the people in my community. App.net I will continue with because I want to support it. Maybe someday my community members will move to it and I can drop Twitter altogether.
  2. News: I am going to experiment with local news sources. I am not sure what is available for Kelowna that is good, but I intend to find out. I will start up Intigi again in the near future, only because I found it helpful in surfacing news about space that I could not get without much trawling of RSS and Twitter.
  3. Podcasts: The Incomparable and You Look Nice Today for sure. I might consider listening to Critical Path again, since I don’t get a chance to read the blog, and I learn lots about business from Horace.
  4. Apple blogs: Nope.
  5. Books: Focusing on one at a time is much easier if they are eBooks. Lesson learned. Will continue with this.
  6. TV and Movies: Stick to my plan of BrBa and later Doctor Who. I might not have time for many movies which is okay.
  7. Meetups: More of this. Actually interacting with others is important for synthesizing ideas. I will probably post about this again.

The Information Diet

During the first weekend of my information fast I read The Information Diet by Clay Johnson. I felt pretty sheepish when I came across this comment criticizing fasting:

For most, I think this will yield an unsuccessful outcome. By the end of the fast, you’ll be so eager to plug back in that — like a food fast — you’re likely to binge as soon as you get the chance.

Regardless I am sticking with my fast plan. My idea is to break my diet down and build it up from scratch, using the guidance from this nice little red book.

Johnson uses the metaphor of healthy eating to communicate his idea of the ills of “junk” information and information overconsumption. Much of the book relates his experience in the DC beltway, witnessing the FUD spread by the political information production-consumption machine.

The authour advocates battling information “obesity” and the three types of ignorance (agnotology, epistemic closure, filter failure) with an information diet consisting of low ads, information diversity, balance, a sense of humour and data literacy, which he defines as the abilities to:

  • search, filter and process data
  • produce data
  • synthesize data

These last two really struck home. As I mentioned in my Information Fast post, I find I am constantly consuming other people’s opinions without properly synthesizing them and coming up with my own. I don’t blog as much, and if I do it is rarely original.

I pine for the time when I was writing my Master’s thesis, when I was forced to think and write out of necessity. I would periodically come up for air and see what was going on in the outside world. It was difficult, but much more satisfying.

Johnson writes about the ability to focus, and coins the term “attention fitness”:

Attention is something that requires cognitive energy, and it’s something that we must build up. You don’t train for a marathon by sitting on a couch and you don’t help your attention span by giving in to the temptation of every distraction that comes across your eyeballs.

Recently I’ve found it difficult to concentrate on a (printed) book for any length of time. Most of my reading is done through audiobooks. It normally takes me 2 months to read a print book during which time I can finish about 4 audiobooks. Reading books has become difficult, a chore. At night I would rather sit back and listen to a book, or watch a TV show (passive consumption). Furthermore, I usually read four books simultaneously. This is a symptom of my SNS/Blogs/HN/etc.-media-overconsumption-induced ADD. I can barely remember any of the books I have read in the past year. My short term memory may be suffering too… I can’t remember. I need to get back to when reading was relaxing. But there is too much to read!

In the tech world, curation is all the rage. But Johnson warns against this:

… the information overload community tends to rely on technical filters — the equivalent of trying to lose weight by rearranging the shelves in your refrigerator. Tools tend to amplify existing behavior. The mistaken concept of information overload distracts us from paying attention to behavioral changes.

Rather than filtering the aggregated curators, it is better to gather your information from primary sources. Johnson uses the metaphor of an information trophic pyramid. Cut out “processed” information from the punditocracy and read the source material, consider it and synthesize it yourself. Being an “activist” Johnson encourages readers to seek out data catalogues of public information provided by federal, state and local governments. If your city doesn’t have one, lobby for one. You are paying for that data with your tax money.

I found Kelowna’s Open Data Catalogue, which I plan to take a look at and think about uses. It would be great to get some people together for the next Startup Weekend Okanagan and use this data to make something cool and useful. I wonder who is responsible for making this data available, and are representatives from the local tech community in touch with this person? I know who to ask.

Anyways, trophic pyramid. Consume lots from this category. It is healthy for you. With that said, I encourage you to read The Information Diet. Although it probably should be a long magazine article, it is short enough for you to finish in a weekend if you are willing to ignore Twitter for a couple of days. I am going to consider this book a lot over the coming weeks as I plan my own information diet.

Information Fast

The pledge:

For the month of September I pledge to limit my media consumption. This means no Twitter, Google+, Path, Tumblr, Hacker News, Popurls , Intigi or Zite. It means no Apple blogs. It means no football podcasts or watching MOTD. I am limiting myself to 1 of each of the following sources:

  • 1 Non-fiction book at a time
  • 1 Fiction book at a time
  • 1 Social network for interaction (App.net)
  • 1 Podcast per week (The Incomparable, approx. 1hr)
  • The occasional movie

My goal is to throttle my media consumption to:

  1. Find out what media sources are truly valuable to me; and
  2. Gain more time to think.

The result will hopefully be more blogging of original material.

@replies only

One caveat I reserve is to check mentions from social networks. I do not have comments on my blog and garner reactions from my posts on Twitter and Google+. I get notified when I am mentioned and I pledge to only check these mentions, and not to wander down the ratholes of other people’s conversations.

Time to think (revisited)

Harjj Taggar removed email from his iPhone. Some choice quotes:

Having time to think is precious to me and it’s also incredibly important if you want to achieve anything close to original thought. … Once I realized the power of this I went on to delete more than just email. Facebook, Twitter and Quora apps have all been removed (for me Twitter has been the one I’ve missed the most). It’s been the best decision I’ve made this year and would highly recommend it.

I was just talking about this with @scdaustin, telling him about my idea about having a social media free week. My concern was my lack of reading books. I spend all day reading Twitter, Google+, App.net, Tumblr, Popurls, Hacker News, Zite and Intigi… it isn’t like I am not reading anything. Furthermore, I had to up my Reading Challenge 2012 on Goodreads from 30 to 40 books. But it is all an illusion… most of my “reading” is done with audiobooks. For books you want to get really deep into and annotate, you need text.

Almost exactly four years ago I had a similar realization

I learned how to increase web consumption efficiency by using (hundreds of) RSS feeds. I turned my “downtime” into “productive” time by listening to lectures, audiobooks and podcasts while doing chores, commuting, etc. Everywhere I went I had my iPod plugged in. I thought I was learning when I was actually just consuming. I was so effective at packing each minute of each day full of articles and books that I squeezed out any quiet time just to sit and think.

How am I to come to terms with my overconsumption? Why… read another book of course! Check out Clay Johnson’s The Information Diet:

So, I think rather than simply auditing my social networks, I should pause them all for a bit and spend time thinking about my consumption habits so that I may recover more time to think.