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  • The Illusion of Online Efficiency

    There is Only One Exit from the Technological Arms Race

    Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)

    The Internet is widely advertised as the most efficient communication medium ever devised. I am inclined to think it is the least efficient. A lot depends, of course, upon what one means by "efficient."

    Certainly anyone who has spent time surfing the Net -- riding the waves of irrelevant, accidental, mistyped, misdirected, vacant, shallow, naive, fad-induced, disorganized, self-promoting verbiage -- will have wondered occasionally about the renowned efficiency of it all. But this side of the Net has already drawn frequent comment. I am much more concerned here with what, at first glance, really does look efficient.

    The Net, for example, is often seen as an unlimited pool of expertise, to which anyone can submit a question and receive immediate answer from exactly the right, knowledgeable person. Newcomers who have hit it lucky with such inquiries can scarcely repress exclamations of wonder at such a remarkably efficient information resource.

    Eventually, however, this claim of efficiency will be recognized as one of the strangest illusions generated by the Net. It requires no sophisticated mathematical analysis to realize the terrible inefficiency of the arrangement: if experts on every imaginable topic spend their time reading broadcast inquiries in the expectation of finding an occasional one they can answer -- and perhaps also in the expectation of having their own inquiries heard -- then the "net" wasted time is stunning.

    What creates the illusion for new groups of Net users is the fact that they're all so entranced by this unfamiliar world of online communication that they're quite happy to be wasting their time. When the good fortune of an "efficiently" answered question is celebrated, the wasted time is forgotten. But as the group matures, its tolerance for inefficiency decreases dramatically, and newcomers wielding innocent questions start bumping their noses against unexpected rudeness.

    Narrowing a group's focus does not change this logic. In the sense that counts, every domain of interest turns out to be roughly as "wide" as every other; narrowly focused groups simply have more subspecialties. The practical reality remains the same: the group either spends its time answering simple, repeated questions, or else must cope with numerous specialized inquiries that are irrelevant to most participants.

    This is not to deny that we can share real benefits in effectively managed, electronic discussion groups -- especially during the early, "discovery" stage of affiliation. What is silly is only the assumption that these benefits result from a broad, new efficiency of the Net.

    The same silliness extends to the Net's "miracle of efficient connectivity." It's not at all clear that the Net is more efficient at putting people meaningfully in touch with each other than, say, the telephone or postal service. In some regards it is faster, but speed is not quite the same thing as efficiency. Give every citizen speedy automated calling equipment, and you have not necessarily increased society's efficiency -- as the recipients of junk calls can testify.

    The hope, of course, is that a new efficiency will be born of the computational intelligence embedded in our machines. We can already send software agents prowling the Net to collect preferred information on our behalf, and can defend ourselves against unwanted intrusions by applying logical filters.

    Yes. But where once any stranger could dial me, now no one at all can count on getting through. Moreover, I know less and less about the identity and purpose of the "agents" I do let through. Is this the new, miraculous connectivity?

    Behind all this lies the grandest illusion of all: the illusion that the next advance in information technology -- which up till now has put us ever more helplessly at the mercy of unspoken information we neither understand nor know what to do with -- will somehow finally reverse the trend and give us efficient mastery.

    What we forget is that the arms race between the powers of information proliferation and powers of information management is an endlessly escalating one. The logical finesse with which we manage information is the same logical finesse that generates yet more information and outflanks the tools of management. Software agents are quite as capable of mindlessly flinging off information as of mindlessly collecting it.

    Surely there is only one escape from the mindlessness: to realize that the essential contest is not between information management and information inflation, but between the obsession with information -- well managed or otherwise -- and the habit of quiet reflection.

    If the Net's efficiency in information management is doubtful, its role in promoting quiet reflection has, by all the evidences, been catastrophic. There would remain some small hope if the catastrophe were widely accepted as a challenge for both engineers and users of the Net. But it is not. So we can expect the empty, informational arms race to continue.

    When the unwelcome consequences of this arms race finally do force a little reflection upon us, may we be found still capable of reflecting.

    Permission is granted for noncommercial redistribution of this article.

    Steve Talbott :: The Illusion of Online Efficiency :: http://netfuture.org/meditations/efficiency.1.html

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