Productive Workplace: Cognitive Load Management Spaces

Cognitive load management: ability to discriminate and filter information for importance, and to understand how to maximize cognitive functioning using a variety of tools and techniques.

You have access to more information than any other person in history, you’ll have access to even more information tomorrow. It would take you more than a lifetime to consume the information that will get uploaded produced in the next minute. There are over 600,000 files uploaded to Dropbox in a minute, there are nearly 1,500,000 videos uploaded to YouTube every 30 seconds and that’s just two of the popular internet services.

One Second on the Internet is a great visualisation of the pace of change.

You cannot possibly hope to keep-up; you live in a world where there are vastly more things that you don’t know that you don’t known than things to know.

One of the most popular posts on this site is one titled: “There’s no such thing as information overload only failure to filter“. At the simplest level I agree with the statement but I think that it’s such a massive simplification that it’s not really very useful. One of the problems with it is the assumption that the necessary tools for filtering exist and exist in such a way as to be useful.

I think it’s a bit more like this cartoon:

We haven’t quite figured out filtering yet

The reality is, though, that this is the world we are all working in, a world that can easily and quickly overload our mental abilities, a world screaming out for attention. I use the word attention because it’s the scarce resource.

There has already been significant evolution in the tools that we have available to us for filtering and visualisation and there’s plenty more to come, but I’ve talked about their impact on the workplace already in the posts on Computational Thinking  and Sense Making. I haven’t yet talked much about attention though and we all live in the middle of an attention economy that is competing for our precious cognitive capabilities.

“…in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it”

Herbert A. Simon

There is a whole army of people and associated technology seeking to manipulate our attention for their purposes. The Google results that you see are not the results that I see because Google is trying to give me results that keep my attention. The attention that I give them has a direct link to their revenue after all. They’re filtering my results for their purposes. Google aren’t the only ones doing this, it’s now normal practice for many of the sites that we visit every day. While this might give us the information and services that we think we need the challenge this creates is one of filter bubbles where we only see what the algorithms decide to show us. Breaking out of the bubble can be a problem; I’ve been very conscious of my filter bubble while researching this blog.

The impact of all of this data, and the attention engineering we are subjected to, is that we are steadily conditioning ourselves to live in a world driven by distraction turning us into people in constant need of stimulus. I’ve written over 50 posts in the category my brain and over 30 in the category information addiction (there is some overlap between these two numbers) many of these focus on the impact that the new world is having on our mental abilities. Steve recently highlighted an experiment where people would rather suffer the pain of an electric shock than be in a place with no stimulus.

We try to multi-task between activities, sometimes with fatal consequences:

What we need are workplaces that facilitate us giving the correct amount of attention to the right thing in the right way with the minimal amount of needless distraction, whilst also protecting us from being completely embedded into a filter bubble.

We all know about spam email, but how many of us also have spam people in our workplace (physical and virtual)?

Are there places that you go to where the impact of spam people is made worse by the acoustics and the room layout?

Can you think of a time when that spam person has highlighted something important to you that you wouldn’t have found out through your normal filters?

The primary distractions that people talk about are acoustics and devices.

Noise has a massive impact on our ability to concentrate and give attention to something. We would want people dispensing drugs in a hospital to be giving full attention to that task, but noise in hospitals has become such an issue that the number of mistakes is increasing. Personally I’ve sat in many offices where the background noise levels affected my ability to focus and now regard a set of earphones as essential.

The issue of acoustics applies to all types of workplaces and we need to do a better job of getting it right.

The other major factor impacting attention is devices. Many of us have been in a conversation where it became clear that the person we were talking to was no longer giving us their attention because they had been distracted by a device. The attention economy techniques reach right into every workplace. I make it a rule that I will just stop talking when someone is distracted by a device. On one occasion I sat for over 5 minutes waiting for someone to come back from their device, they didn’t even notice that I had stopped talking.

I’m not suggesting that we should banish devices from the workplace, but we do need to create ways of muting their impact even if that’s through training and policy.

Some videos you may find interesting:

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