Tuesday, June 19, 2007

High-bandwidth thinking

There is a new kind of thinking emerging. As our capacity for scanning information expands, driven by new technologies, it's becomming possible to scan incredibly vast and diverse streams of information and draw out of them something useful.

It will change the way we do what we do. If you want to save the ocean, you can scan huge information streams covering oceans, fish, fishing, pollution, climate change, environmentalism, and more. Try it. If you do, I'll make a bet that you find something somewhere that somehow rocks your world. A new connection you've never made before, or a new idea you can try.

It's not an entirely new skill. It's similar to a job I had long ago in a Pepsi bottling factory, inspecting the assembly line as up to 4 bottles per second rushed past a lightbox. Grab the defective Pepsi and smash them in a nearby barrel, bam and they're gone no time to look twice. The trick was to defocus, scan the flow, and grab anything that looked out of place. It was an intense lesson in scanning.

Now I scan vast information streams to do my job. With a feed reader, I can keep up with an unbelievable number of information streams, so long as I use a fast-scan approach to grab the best and drop the rest.

There's an interesting emergent property as the number of information streams gets over about 50 or so. Patterns seem to form almost by themselves. There must be a brain backchannel working, but it feels almost as though the information handles itself.

The sorting is strange, but it works in finding gems. Start with blogs, and you'll never go back. Pick your favorite 50 or 100 bloggers that you can rely on to select interesting news, useful links, and pithy commentary. They do a lot of work for you, there's an army of them, and some of them cover the things you care about.

Reading blogs is a study of idiom, the uniqueness of expression that comes from briefly considered thoughts published. It's almost like each has a unique "texture" or "feel" and familiarity allows quick grasp. I've timed myself, I spend usually just a few seconds on each post that arrives in my feed reader. Only the selected few get much time. But with such a high-throughput scan happening, the select few are really good.

This process is not foreign to a luddite. If you're a lover of the New York Times Sunday edition, how do you choose what to read and what to ignore? Probably a similar fast scan of headline, sub-head and a few random sentences near the top that catch your eye.

What's the point of all this? High-bandwidth thinking is a different type of analysis. Quick scan of a million(?) things brings new conclusions in a different way than deep scan of a few things. Don't just drink from a fire hose, drink from a hundred fire hoses. Yee-haw!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

By the time the internet was made public, I was using a "digital ocean" metaphor. Wealth beneath the surface, but you had to (non-destructively) trawl for it.

But yes, I skim everything now, and I hope I make up for what I miss in each piece by reading more widely.