In October 2010, many gathered at a retirement party for the futurist Alvin Toffler and his wife Heidi. It had been 40 years since the 1970 publication of his groundbreaking book Future Shock, in which he made a number of predictions about where our culture was headed. Many of those predictions came true. At this party, he revisited Future Shock and shared new predictions.
Toffler’s 1970 book popularized the term “information overload” decades before the Internet was commercialized. In his latest report, “40 For The Next 40,” he notes that it is now very easy to collect information faster than it can be analyzed. That information sits on computers unused and accumulating what Toffler calls “cyberdust.”
For example, the Web enables the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA)
and other security organizations to capture full-motion video from security cameras and satellites faster than humans can be expected to analyze it. E-commerce and even your basic Web hosting services capture customer and visitor data faster than you are able to sift through and act on it. Toffler predicts that this will lead to automating analysis tasks that today are done by humans.
I wholeheartedly embrace this concept and can see several implications myself. E-book readers are hot right now, but do a little rough math on them. According to Amazon.com Inc. (Nasdaq: AMZN), the Kindle now holds 3,500 books. A typical novel runs 80,000 to 120,000 words, and an average human reader might read about 300 words per minute. That’s 4 to 6 hours to read a novel. Thus, if you did nothing but read for 40 hours a week, the Kindle would keep you busy for 6.7 to 10.1 years.
Not bad, considering you can fill that Kindle full of books in a day if you wanted! Hours to load the device off the Web -- years to process the data. Cyberdust in action.
Personally, I’m even worse. About five years ago I didn’t have time to read all the business books I wanted, so I subscribed to a service that sold those five-page book summaries. Now I don’t even have time to read the summaries, and my hard drive is filling up. Cyberdust again.
Could this phenomenon trigger a secondary trend around teaching people to speed-read? Will it change how we process and analyze data?
I believe cyberdust may also lead to stress-related disorders. It especially concerns me that we could turn into a nation of skimmers. We’ve been programmed to skim the headlines when met with too much information. We are creatures of deletion by necessity. And, if all you’re doing is skimming, why not multitask and text, listen to your iPod, and watch a streaming video, all at the same time?
I’m afraid we could create a generation of “inch deep, mile wide” multitasking skimmers who might lack the skills and patience to focus in depth on a task if needed. With unemployment at 10 percent and a commoditized job market, pumping an army of non-focused job seekers into the marketplace can’t help the national productivity.
The concept of cyberdust will have great implications for businesses as well. Every time you visit a Website, your clicks and keystrokes are monitored and timed to feed site “stickiness” and popularity ratings. Each online purchase continues to fill up those data warehouses in the cloud. Behind the scenes are trained analysts sifting through that data, looking for patterns and advising on strategies to optimize sales. If data comes in at a rate much faster than they can process it, you have to wonder if those analysts’ jobs are at risk. Could their analysis tasks be automated as Toffler suggests?
Will cyberdust lead to services akin to cyber-housecleaning? We have some of that already with apps focused on clearing your desktop of any icons that have not been accessed in x number of weeks, automatic archiving of old files, etc. Why not carry that concept deeper and broader?
The volume, speed, and complexity of change is greater today than ever before. I believe that applies even more so to information and Internet technology.
— Jeff Cole is president of JCG Management Consulting Ltd., a firm specializing in business process improvement and change management.