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Information Overload

Regarding "Growing Pains with Information Overload" (A.F. Rutkowski and C.S. Saunders, The Profession, June 2010, pp. 96, 94-95), I would like to offer the following comments.

First, to the best of my knowledge, overload was first shown in 1927 in the Fritz Lang movie, Metropolis. The scene the authors cited in Modern Times (1936) in which Charlie Chaplin is worked to distraction by a machine is in fact almost a copy of a scene in the 1927 Lang film in which a worker is worked to a state of collapse while using two large dials to control a machine.

In an even earlier scene in Metropolis, the son of the Master of Metropolis first enters the workers' level of the city. He finds a team of workers struggling to control a large machine. They lose control of the machine due to overload, both mental and physical. It then explodes and changes into a horrific vision of Moloch consuming workers whole.

Second, the authors' proposed solutions seem incomplete (and unrealistic). First, they suggest "…we could use psychometric tests to identify those special [!] persons who can deal with multiple digital technologies…" And do what with the results? They don't say.

One use of these results would be to ban such "special" individuals from developing the UIs of systems. Or at the least require that their work is given special examination by reviewers and testers to ensure that they haven't assumed (explicitly or not) that everybody else is likewise "special."

As for the idea of "… offering courses in digital technology overload management …", I suggest that the courses (and research) be focused more on what various classes of users of differing categories of systems can reasonably be expected to do and then insist that developers design their systems (the authors' last, all too brief suggestion) following reasonable standards so that the interfaces are easy to comprehend, allowing users to readily move back and forth between multiple systems. Of course, there is a long history (usually ignored) of work on human-machine interface standards and various classes of users that could be leveraged and expanded upon. I believe the current versions of the IEEE software standards include, for example, an identification of various classes of users.

Despite these quibbles, I truly did enjoy this article.

Mark Christensen

The authors respond:

Thank you for your feedback and information about the Fritz Lang movie. We didn't think about that one.

We agree with your comment that some of the proposed solutions are/seem unrealistic. At first, our intent was to somehow be sarcastic about those, but we also realize that it was all that could be found at the moment in the literature or in management practices. For that very reason, we propose to start at the source and change the way we all think about overload. We are working on more efficient solutions at the moment and hope to publish them soon.

Thank you for your interest in our article.

Digital Gluttony

I agree with Neville Holmes's premise that society today tends toward digital gluttony at the expense of social interaction and contemplative development ("The Rise and Rise of Digital Gluttony," The Profession, May 2010, pp. 96, 94-95).

As a member of IEEE and a computing professional, I find myself often forgetting that the computer and its many digital forms are merely tools, and not meant to be ends in themselves. In our striving to be always "digitally connected" we forget that the point of having these tools is to enable us to spend less time on mundane everyday tasks such as processing paperwork and transferring and storing information, and to free up more time for personal development and social interaction.

I also like the point that the passive aspects of technology, including television, video, and videogames, tend to dominate the thoughts of those who spend copious amounts of time viewing and immersing themselves in them. Too often the values and free aspects of these media have real-world consequences on the morals and behavior of those caught up in them. Maybe it explains to some extent the rise in violence we see around us today and the growing lack of concern for others.

Thank you for this insightful article.

Charles Maurice

"The Rise and Rise of Digital Gluttony" is an excellent article and very much to the point.

Instead of "feature gluttony," I would have preferred the term "equipment gluttony." This is occurring everywhere with the addition of more and more supplementary features. This reflects the old engineering fallacy: if it looks nice it, must be useful (R.F. Rosin, "The Significance of Microprogramming," A. Guenther, B. Levrat, and H. Lipps [eds.], Proc. Intl Computing Symp., North Holland Publishing Co., 1994, pp. 237-242).

I would also suggest that equipment gluttony refers to the tendency to computerize everything using a tool. It seems to me that a salt dispenser with a lightbulb already exceeds the limit of necessity. The combination of tools is the father of equipment gluttony.

Gerhard Chroust

Thank you for the interesting column about digital gluttony. I can certainly identify with the annoying attachment we've developed to e-mail:

Higgledy piggledy

transmission gluttony,

cellphone and toaster

plugged into the hub.


shame and disgust,

should late come an answer

'cause I'm in the tub.

Stéfan van der Walt

Cash-Free Society

"Computing a Better World" (The Profession, Apr. 2010, pp. 96, 94-95), in which Kai Olsen discusses how computerized money is replacing cash, is certainly a thought-provoking article.

Regarding non-anonymous money, the author suggests that "For ordinary law-abiding citizens this should not be considered a threat as long as good laws to protect public privacy remain in place."

I don't quite understand what public privacy is, but computerized money is a dangerous thing if it is all ordinary citizens can use.

Different towns (whether 1 kilometer apart or 15,000 kilometers apart) have different notions of what is legal, what is public, and what is private. People have been killed for holding the wrong document and incarcerated for holding the wrong substance.

Lacking a worldwide uniform standard of legality and decency means that only true anonymity is safe when purchasing things.

The simple ability to use money attributable to oneself to purchase unattributable money-cards (conceptually possible?) might resolve the problem. It's a solution appearing in many science-fiction stories.

David Anderson

The author responds:

David Anderson clearly makes a point in stating that universal privacy is not a well-defined matter. Still, most of us accept using global systems such as credit cards, search engines, social systems, and e-mail in the same way we have used the postal service and the telephone. That is, we trust that our understanding of privacy is comparable to the model that these public systems use and that the dangers of misuse are small.

As Anderson implies, there may be states that we won't trust, but these will, for this reason only, never be the site of global systems. There is, of course, always the risk that a democracy may go bad, but then rules and regulations, or practical measures such as cash, will be of no avail. The German secret police managed to keep the population in the occupied territories, and in Germany, under strict control 70 years ago with no computers.

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