Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Encountering information: serendipity or overload?

After my keynote at ISIC, one of the participants challenged me on my claim that information overload is a "bad thing" (not that I put it quite like that, but I certainly suggested it was something to be avoided). I framed it as a challenge when trying to design to support serendipity. We had an extended discussion about this later that day.

What Eva made me realise (thanks, Eva!) is that encountering exactly the same information can be regarded positively or negatively depending on the circumstances and the attitude of mind. If the attitude is one of exploring and of opportunity then the experience is typically positive. Eva consumes information enthusiastically on a wide variety of topics, and rarely if ever feels overloaded by the sheer volume of information available.

Whether or not information encountering is regarded as serendipitous is another question. A while ago, I gave a PechaKucha talk on the SerenA project; in the talk, I gave an example that I argue was serendipity: I encountered information that was unexpected, where I made a connection between my ambitions and an opportunity that was presenting itself, and from which the outcome was valuable. I also described the "sandpit" process that initiated SerenA – i.e., putting a bunch of academics together in a space that was conducive to ideas generation. Arguably, this experience was positive and creative, but not serendipitous, because it was designed to lead to positive outcomes. So although we could not have predicted the form of the outcome, we expected there to be an unanticipated outcome. So it wasn't serendipitous. Based on our empirical studies of serendipitous experiences, we have developed a process model of serendipity, namely that "a new connection is made that involves a mix of unexpectedness and insight and has the potential to lead to a valuable outcome. Projections are made on the potential value of the outcome and actions are taken to exploit the connection, leading to an (unanticipated) valuable outcome." From this, we also developed a classification framework
based on different mixes of unexpectedness, insight and value that define a “serendipity space” encompassing different “strengths” of serendipity.

So where does information overload fit? Well, as a busy academic, typical of many busy people, new information (however valuable) often represents new obligations:
  •  to assimilate the information,
  •  to assess its value, and
  •  to act on it. 
I recognise the potential value of opportunities, and feel frustrated by my lack of capacity to exploit them all. And because of limited capacity, every opportunity taken means other opportunities that have to be passed over. In addition, limited memory means that even assimilating all the information I "should" know represents a substantial obligation that I can't hope to fulfill. So I feel under constant threat of information overload. And that seriously inhibits my openness to serendipitous encounters.

As recounted in the PechaKucha talk: twenty-something years ago, when my children were 2 years and 3 months old respectively, I came across an advert for a PhD studentship. It was my "dream" studentship, on an exciting topic and in the perfect location for me. Doing a PhD was not in my plans at the time, but was too good an opportunity to miss. And the outcome has been fantastic. It was unquestionably a serendipitous encounter. Apart from the unintended consequence that I now feel constantly under threat of total information overload!

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