22 August, 2015

Simon Says: A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention

A post by Tim Taylor earlier this week caught my attention.

It focused on Herb Simon's 1971 article "Designing Organizations for an Information-Rich World" (hand-edited draft here), an essay which seems as relevant today as ever - including in the emerging study of "attention economies" such as YouTube.

Perhaps the idea is also somewhat related to this famous (and humorous) selective attention test.

In that (now) 45-year-old article, Simon wrote:
A large share of the costs of an information-rich environment are carried by information users, not information providers... [and] humans may be poorly adapted to disregard information enough...
Even before television, we lived in an environment of information conveyed mostly by our neighbors, including some pretty tall tales. We acquired a variety of techniques for dealing with information overload. We know that there are people who can talk faster than we can and give us an argument on almost any topic.
We listen patiently, because we cannot process information fast enough to refute them; that is, until the next day, when we find the hole in their argument. A relevant rule that my father taught me was, "Never sign in the presence of a salesman."
By adopting such rules and their extensions, we allow ourselves the extra processing time needed to deal with the information overload. ... I think that all levels of intelligence, human beings have common sense protecting them from the worst features of their information environment.
If information overload ever really gets the best of me, my last resort is to follow the advice of Gertrude Stein in the opening pages of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas: `I like a view, but I like to sit with my back turned to it.'

Herb Simon passed away almost fifteen years ago; I wonder if he would still believe that our "common sense" remained enough to protect us from "the worst features of [our] information environment" in the age of Facebook and Twitter.

In future posts I'll write more about a couple of related ideas for business leaders:

What makes "Simon Says" personal to me

Herb Simon was a professor at Carnegie Mellon whose contributions were recognized with both a Nobel prize in Economics* (1978) and it's equivalent in computer science (Turing, 1975).  He is recognized by the APA as the 37th most influential psychologist of the 20th century, so if there were a Nobel prize in psychology he likely would have won that too.  He was an interdisciplinary polymath, and mentor to many of my professors in computer science (undergrad) and business (grad).

I met him once, in a freshman-year orientation class: ~2x/week, for 16 weeks, a different professor would sit down with all ~125 of us and talk about their views on computer science.  Most of the talks went way over my head, although some of the professors would later leave a lasting impression on me: a wonderfully confounding experimental discrete math class simultaneously co-taught by Dana Scott (Turing, 1976), Danny Sleator (invented splay trees), and Doug Tygar (a cryptographer who helped create the first secure online payment systems) comes to mind; as does an artificial intelligence class taught by a new professor named Andrew Moore.

Herb Simon's one-hour lecture was the only one from that orientation that stayed with me, not just for days or weeks but now more than twenty years later.  And he didn't even talk about computer science.  He told the story of his career, including how he and a friend spent several months riding trains through Europe in the immediate aftermath of WWII.  They had gone over as part of the design/administration of the Marshall Plan and ended up stuck waiting for a ride home due to the sheer number of returning troops.

So they passed the time sightseeing by train, and developed a game where they would pick a different profession - bricklayer, doctor, engineer, etc. - on each part of the journey to see if they could credibly inhabit that role for a few days.  Perhaps there's a psychological reason why suspicious people were unlikely to call them out as fakers; perhaps Herb's interests were sufficiently broad that he was particularly good at the game.  Probably both, and they played it successfully for several months.

Expert advice reasons from first principles

The other thing I remember from that hour was Herb telling me to stop taking notes.  He said the process of taking notes would interfere with my ability to fully comprehend what he was saying; that the most important thing was understanding the gist of what he had to say.  Details could always be looked up again later.  He was, in essence, telling me that too much information would create a poverty of attention.

I didn't take notes for a long time after that, because Simon Says: Don't take notes.  It was excellent advice, and I took it - not because Prof Simon was arguing from authority but because his advice was the result of solid reasoning from first principles.

Thanks for reading,

*some distinguish it as not an "original" Nobel (from the website):  In 1968, Sveriges Riksbank (Sweden's central bank) established the Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, founder of the Nobel Prize.

The Prize in Economic Sciences is awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Stockholm, Sweden, according to the same principles as for the Nobel Prizes that have been awarded since 1901.

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