Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Information and the Quality of Life: Environmentalism for the Information Age by David Levy

I was very pleased to learn the final keynote speaker at the LITA Forum in San Jose was David Levy. I heard Dr. Levy, a professor from the Information School at the University of Washington, at the Public Library Association Conference last year in Seattle. I was impressed with his presentation then and have since read his book Scrolling Forward: Making Sense of Documents in the Digital Age. This year's presentation was Information and the Quality of Life: Environmentalism for the Information Age.

Dr. Levy began his presentation reminding us of a train accident that occurred in Japan earlier in the year. The train was running 90 seconds late and the engineer was running the train beyond the recommended speed trying very hard to get the train on schedule. Being late was unacceptable. Many people died. The author Richard Ford recently said, “The pace of life seems morally dangerous to me.”

Dr. Levy told a personal story. His daughter had a very busy imaginary friend when she was young; when asked about the friend, she would say that the friend was too busy to talk that day. Even five year olds know about information overload and the hectic pace of life.

All of us are too busy. Dr. Levy says his addiction is his email. There are many fine things about email, but he gets too much of it and he feels compelled to answer it all. He anticipates getting wonderful messages, such as news of grants or acceptance of his writings in publications, and dreads bad news. He will not check email on the Sabbath, but finds himself thinking about it anyway. He is still trying to work out a sane way of dealing with it.

In 1945, Vannevar Bush, science advisor to President Roosevelt, said that people were suffering from too much information, and he suggested a “memex,” a device that would store and make retrievable data from books, records, and communications. The memex would help organize the information and give people more leisure. The computer does everything that Bush hoped the memex would do, except it does not lessen the stress of information overload; instead, the load is heavier.

Dr. Levy said that the dangers of the stress of information overload include poorer physical health, poorer mental health, falling productivity, decreasing quality of work, less satisfaction from work, bad decision making, less socialization, and less democracy.

In his book Leisure: The Basis of Culture, Josef Pieper claims that work has become the sole purpose of being for many people. Our society needs to provide leisure to allow individuals to reclaim perspective. Attending football games, racing cars, partying, surfing the web, listening to Ipods, are not leisure. Pieper means contemplation and stillness. “Only the person who is still can hear.” People need to find silence and sanctuary.

Dr. Levy said that there are two types of thinking: ratio (pronounced ratzio) and intellectus. Ratio is based on taking facts, doing research, calculating. Intellectus comes by just looking, contemplating, meditating. The Web and information technology is strong on ratio and weak on intellectus. To restore quality of life in our hectic lives, we need to create an ecology that balances ratio and intellectus.

Dr. Levy described the movement of which he is a part. He organized the Conference on Information, Silence, and Sanctuary last year and will be leading The Workshop on Mindful Work and Technology in March 2006. He is starting a Center for Information and the Quality of Life at the University of Washington. Redesigning technology and promoting new applications that offer contemplation are some of the goals of the movement. An important book is Coming to Our Senses by Jon Kabat-Zinn.

The question and answer period following the formal presentation was lengthy. Many librarians asked questions about the library role in bringing a balance to the world of information. Dr. Levy noted that libraries already have a reputation as a place to go for quiet, though the reality is that libraries are often busy places. He thinks libraries should restore the reputation somewhat and market it. There would be many grateful people.

1 comment:

laura said...

There's a wonderful essay by Adam Gopnik called "Bumping into Charlie Ravioli" (it's in a recent Best American Essays, but I forget what year) about a child with an imaginary friend too busy to play with her.

The problem with writing about information overload is that it tends to lead to yet more information one would like to take in. Ah well. Thanks for the wonderful quotation from Richard Ford, also.