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Technology companies face the music

I am a passionate proponent of new technologies but one reason I’ve published a lot on technology (the entire Berkshire Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction as well as articles in virtually every other encyclopedia–whether they were on sports or religion or history) is I believe we should not accept any technology without question. We need to be alert to their social and environmental consequences, and it bothers me to hear keynote speakers from Google taking a one-sided approach to issues that are difficult and nuanced. For example, David Eun, VP of Content Partnerships, an intelligent and articulate speaker at the Information Industry Summit in January, threw out a figure about the number of bytes of information now available on the Web as if quantity was what it was all about. (A odd thing from someone responsible for working with publishers, since one of our significant responsibilities is not to publish–a top scientific journal, for example, publishes only a tiny fraction of material submitted, and that’s to the benefit of the field, and, one hopes, to society.) He also announced the good news that “elementary school students are communicating in Powerpoint.”

But there’s nothing like the bottomline to focus people’s attention. As technology interferes with activities that will produce revenue, companies are beginning to take stock. Here’s an article from the New York Times about how “Tech Firms Face Self-Made Beast. by forming a nonprofit group to study information overload:

. . . the participating companies, like I.B.M., are already devising ways to contain the digital flow. . . . The E-Mail Addict feature in Gmail is more of a blunt instrument. Clicking the “Take a break” link turns the screen gray, and a message reads: “Take a walk, get some real work done, or have a snack. We’ll be back in 15 minutes!”

I like the semantics here: “real work” meaning all the stuff we’re supposed to be getting done when we’re reading e-mail (or writing blog posts). And I enjoyed this:

Silicon Valley denizens speak of “e-mail bankruptcy,” or getting so far behind in responding to e-mail messages that it becomes necessary to delete them all and start over.

Berkshire Publishing is moving offices, which means some server downtime and a pile-up of e-mail, by the way, so I may may be tempted to declare myself e-mail bankrupt this week!

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