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No Time to Think

Luke Breuer
2010-05-20 18:17 UTC

David M. Levy gave a Google Tech Talk titled No Time to Think on March 07, 2008. His major thesis goes something along the lines of:
In our current digital age, information overload plus increasing specialization is causing people to not think contemplatively enough.
(stolen from Youtube)
Vannevar Bush's 1945 article, As We May Think, has been much celebrated as a central inspiration for the development of hypertext and the World Wide Web. Less attention, however, has been paid to Bush's motivation for imagining a new generation of information technologies; it was his hope that more powerful tools, by automating the routine aspects of information processing, would leave researchers and other professionals more time for creative thought. But now, more than sixty years later, it seems clear that the opposite has happened, that the use of the new technologies has contributed to an accelerated mode of working and living that leaves us less to think, not more. In this talk I will explore how this state of affairs has come about and what we can do about it.

Speaker: David M. Levy
David Levy earned a Ph.D. in Computer Science at Stanford University in 1979 and a Diploma in Calligraphy and Bookbinding from the Roehampton Institute (London) in 1983. For more than fifteen years he was a researcher at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), where his work, described in Scrolling Forward: Making Sense of Documents in the Digital Age (Arcade, 2001), centered on exploring the transition from paper and print to digital. During the year 2005-2006, he was the holder of the Papamarkou Chair in Education and Technology at the Library of Congress. A professor at the UW Information School since 2000-2001, he has been investigating how to restore contemplative balance to a world marked by information overload, fragmented attention, extreme busyness, and the acceleration of everyday life.
Note that one can append the bookmarks below (such as #t=4m00s) to the Youtube video url, to jump to that position in the video. Many of the notes below are just copies of the presentation slides. I have not optimized the time indexes for the beginning of each segment of the conversation, but they do identify a section in the video where a slice may be seen.
Why did it take Barbara McClintock able to win a Nobel Prize?
What enabled Barbara McClintock to see further and deeper into the mysteries of genetics than her colleagues? She took the time to look and to hear what the material had to say to her.

At Harvard, students asked McClintock, "Where does one get the time to look and to think?" They argued that the new technology of molecular biology is self-propelling. It doesn't leave time. There's always the next experiment, the next sequencing to do. The pace of current research seems to preclude such a contemplative stance.
-- Evelyn Fox Keller, A Feeling for the Organism, 1983
Vannevar Bush, 1890-1974
Vannevar, from As We May Think
Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library, ...a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility...

This device permits "associative indexing, the basic idea of which is a provision whereby any item may be caused at will to select immediately and automatically another. This is the essential feature of the memex. The process of tying two items together is the important thing.
This can be considered to be the seminal inspiration for hypertext, even though computers during this time were huge walls of switches. (Tim Berners-Lee acknowledges this.)
David argues that the larger argument Vannevar was trying to make, was lost.
A devastating war is ending, in which science and technology have allowed people to deploy "cruel weapons" against one another. The survival of the human race depends on its ability to "grow in the wisdom of race experience." If people had better access to the record of human achievement, they would be able to "better review [their] shady past and analyze more completely and objectively [their] present problems"; they would be better able to think.

But there are obstacles preventing people from making the best use of this record; ...
Better tools, by automating the more routine aspects of research, would free people up for the more creative aspects of their work.

He distinguished between two kinds of thought:
  • routine, repetitive
  • mature, creative

For mature thought there is no mechanical substitute. But creative thought and essentially repetitive thought are very different things. For the latter there are, and may be, powerful mechanical aids.
Despite this visionary work
  • the sense of information overload has grown
  • we have less time to think, not more
What went wrong?
We have less time to think than ever before.
Josef Pieper, 1904-1997
German philosopher
Catholic theologian
Josef wrote Leisure: the Basis of Culture, in 1947. He's answering a question like, "What are scientists going to do now, that the war has come to an end?"
[T]he world of work is becoming our entire world; it threatens to engulf us completely, and the demands of the world of work become greater and greater, till at last they make a 'total' claim upon the whole of human nature.
Josef's thesis is that we need time for leisure.
Will it ever be possible to keep, or reclaim, some room for leisure from the forces of total work? And this would mean not merely a little portion of rest on Sunday, but rather a whole 'preserve' of true, unconfined humanity: a space of freedom, of true learning, of attunement to the world-as-a-whole? In other words, will it be possible to keep the human being from becoming a complete functionary, or 'worker'?
Without leisure, people will become less fully human.
Leisure is a form of stillness that is the necessary preparation for accepting reality; only the person who is still can hear, and whoever is not still cannot hear... Leisure is the disposition of receptive understanding, of contemplative beholding, and immersion in the real.

Leisure = scola = school, scholar, scholarship
School and scholarship were considered leisure activities to the Greeks, a time of contemplative thought.
The medievals distinguished between the intellect as ratio and the intellect as intellectus. Ratio is the power of discursive thought, of searching and re-searching, abstracting, refining, and concluding, whereas intellectus refers to the ability of "simply looking", to which the truth presents itself as a landscape presents itself to the eye.
  • ratio is more linear, repetitive, and routine
  • intellectus is the more creative, non-linear thinking that one cannot force
The web and other digital technologies may be the best tools that have ever been created for ratio, for "searching and researching, abstracting, refining, and concluding."

What about intellectus?
We're too busy googling and assembling and clicking to perform intellectus.
When fast and slow time meet, fast time wins. This is why one never gets the important things done because there is always something else one has to do first. Naturally, we will always tend to do the most urgent tasks first. In this way, the slow and long-term activities lose out. In an age when the distinctions between work and leisure are being erased, and efficiency seems to be the only value in economics, politics and research, this is really bad news for things like thorough, far-sighted work, play and long-term love relationships.
-- Eriksen, The Tyranny of the Moment, 2001
- Thinking is a slow-time activity!
  • Its more creative aspects can't be truncated or rushed.
  • (Vannevar Bush couldn't foresee that we'd be googling more and thinking less.)

Balancing ratio
  • (searching and re-searching, abstracting, refining, and concluding)
With intellectus
  • (thinking, reflection, assimilation, contemplation)