Moving at the Speed of Creativity by Wesley Fryer

Thoughts on bit literacy and information overload coping strategies

One of my favorite rhetorical questions to ask during workshops is, “Is anyone here NOT receiving enough email?” I don’t know an adult soul who spends time online (my own children and other kids who don’t yet have email accounts are not counted in that group) who suffers from a LACK of email. Remember “the old days” of email, when people actually got excited when they received a new email message? Those were the days of PINE email. Were we better off in those days in some respects? We certainly didn’t know how good we had it in terms of spam! According to some new research, spam accounted for 90% of all email messages sent in the month of June 2007. Good grief. In many ways, I do long for the simpler days of PINE email!I discovered the relatively new book “Bit Literacy: Productivity in the Age of Information and E-mail Overload” by Mark Hurst today, reading Steve Johnson’s article in the Chicago Tribune, “Before you click send: The rules of etiquette apply to e-mail.” According to Johnson:

…the bigger point of “Bit Literacy” is his evangelical belief that e-mail is part of a new, digital-era phenomenon, the streams of data, or “bits,” also including photos and data files that can overwhelm us if we don’t aggressively manage them. “The basic theory in e-mail and all other bitstreams is: To surmount the problem of information overload, one has to let the bits go,” Hurst says. “It does not mean that everyone should just turn off e-mail. What it means, rather, is that people need to get in the habit of looking for ways to delete, defer, delay or otherwise avoid bits because we’re effectively in an age now where bits are infinite.”

Tim Wilson recommended David Allen’s book “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity” to me in February, but I haven’t made time to read it yet. I continue to deal with bit-overload each day, however, and I think I need to read both the GTD book as well as Hurst’s thoughtful book on managing data streams. Again according to Johnson’s article:

“‘Bit Literacy’ says bits are heavy, actually, and an infinite number of them has infinite weight, and it crushes people, their productivity, their morale,” Hurst says. “Having 3,000 e-mails in your inbox is unsustainable because that’s 3,000 things asking for your attention. There’s no way to prioritize. I don’t see that there’s any possible solution but that people should learn to achieve emptiness. In e-mail, people should try to get their inbox message count to zero once every day,” Hurst says

I can count the number of days I have “lived the dream” of a “less than 10 message inbox” in the past year on one hand. Having access to email via an iPhone may help this, but as with most things involving technology I think the hardware and software solutions are just part of the remedy which is needed.staring at too many screens of informationA key part of this “remedy” is helping people use the correct communication modality for their purpose and context. I think many, many people are OVERUSING email today. Many people who email daily jokes to their entire distribution list would help everyone’s information overload quotient by starting a joke blog, rather than sending out email blasts. People who need an immediate response to a question are better advised to use instant messaging or the phone (yes, THE PHONE, many people seem to forget its utility in our digital world) instead. I agree with Johnson and Hurst’s observations that the LACK OF TONE in email often leads to problems which a phone call or face to face discussion could avert:

Don’t use an e-mail when the telephone is better, especially for achieving compromise or a deal or broaching a sensitive topic. E-mail, he says, is terrible at tone, and for that reason, “Send” is actually in favor of emoticons.

Johnson includes a great series of “eight reasons you might not want to e-mail” at the end of his article, quoting from Hurst’s book. Hurst’s encouragement to watch what you write/say in email because everything is archivable / forwardable and can become part of a searchable record to which you may be held accountable is important. So is the following observation about email:

You can reach everyone, but everyone can reach you.

In a post last week from NECC, I reflected on some fundamental differences between email and blogging. I wrote:

Email is potentially a “one-to-many” communication modality, but you have to have all the email addresses before you click SEND. (Or they have to be included in a distribution list or listserv.) Email is a “one-to-finite many” communication modality.Blogging is different. When someone publishes ideas on a blog, they are using a “one-to-infinite many” communication modality. I have no idea how many people will read this post, or how many people will respond. The fact that a theoretically infinite number of people could respond (or more accurately I guess, an unbounded potential number of people could read and respond) is earth shattering.

I do need to get a better handle on email, and I’m working on improving my “productivity” and “effectiveness” on that front. I think, however, we’re headed for uncharted waters when it comes to information flows that will require new levels of “bit literacy” for all of us.As a closing “sign of the times” story, I’ll note that many months ago I came across Michael Goldhaber’s 1997 article “The Attention Economy: The Natural Economy of the Net.” I have scanned the article briefly, but have yet to make time to read it in its entirety. This concept of our information landscape as an “attention economy” is something which has and continues to influence my daily thinking, however, despite the fact I have yet to make time to read the full article. Ironic.I think I’ll print out the article and read it this evening, and then make time to start David Allen’s GTD book. I’m hypothesizing both Goldhaber and Allen will have some relevant thoughts for me as I seek to improve my own “bit literacy” skills!Perhaps the #1 thing I’ve changed in the past year or so regarding my digital consumption and sharing of ideas is use the social bookmarking site At least when I save and “tag” websites during the day as I process information, I help insure I’ll be able to re-locate “that website I saw” sometime down the road. I think my use of has significantly improved both my personal productivity in the digital information environment as well as my value to others as I’m able to simultaneously share my knowledge/ideas (via those tagged and commented web links) with others. The fact that “an infinite many” others can add me to their own networks represents a staggering potential for connected learning I can barely fathom.It’s been a long time since I’ve been bored, and I don’t think an iPhone is going to help that cause. It may be time for another 40 day evening technology fast! 🙂

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3 responses to “Thoughts on bit literacy and information overload coping strategies”

  1. Tim Wilson Avatar

    Wes, Wes, Wes… Put down the laptop and pick up GTD. You won’t be sorry.


  2. Heidi Dudley Avatar
    Heidi Dudley

    Thanks for your insight into the sometimes overwhelming world of email management. I have a recent college graduate who is looking for a job in sports management but who wants to rely on email for contacting potential employers and those she is networking with. I keep trying to explain that a phone call would be much more personal and allow her to set up appointments much quicker than relying solely on email. So, I’m going to send her a copy of your message so she can hopefully understand the avalanche of email that some of these people are dealing with on a daily basis. Maybe this will finally move her more toward her phone where she’ll have the chance to make an impression on a person rather than relying on the “emotion-less” email sytem. We’ll see…..

  3. Henry Lewkowicz Avatar

    Hi Wesley,
    It is true that information is pouring faster and faster. To deal with this challenge one can use a) software that extracts and summarizes the essential facts and b) software that visualizes the text information (like MindManager).

    One can also combine automatic text summarization with visualization. In the past few years I have been working on both aspects. For anyone who would like to get their email, web pages and Google searches instantly summarized I can point to Context Organizer (

    Another improvement can be to apply scripts that summarize large number of search results and report to the user. This way the user takes advantage of a summarizing robot that spiders large number of pages and extracts only the topics that are of interest to the user.

    Large amount of information is a good thing providing that we have more practical ways to take advantage of it.

    Best regards,