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Recently, I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to interview international BI analyst and consultant, Colin White, about, among other things, Big Data. If you’re not a techno person, Big Data refers to amounts of data (data sets) so big they are counted in petabytes (suffice to say that’s a lot) and are often overwhelming. The issue with this, Colin said, is not so much about volume as it is about our ability to cope with it and extract quality from the quantity.
When we take the idea of huge volumes of information out of the specific framework of IT and apply it to everyday living, it gets a little scarier. After all, at work we can at least send it all to the IT team and forget about it until they’ve performed some magic on it and extracted what we need.
At home, we are the IT team.
A lot of data
And the data coming at us is immense. From the moment we wake up each morning our mind and body are being bombarded with information or data. The alarm clock, the radio, the newspaper, email, text messages, the television, iPods, iPads, iPhones, RSS feeds, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Sky – the list is endless and that’s not including actual human interaction which also counts as data (and let’s not forget the cats, dogs, goldfish or pet rocks). What’s more, we’ve dealt with most of it before breakfast – or morning tea if you’re particularly sane – which, I have it on good authority, I am not.
All of this overload is overwhelmingly distracting. Speaking for myself, I can spend an entire day dealing with data of this variety and achieve absolutely …. zip. Ultimately I end up feeling anxious, tired, and a failure. The truth is, the only thing I’m failing at is assimilating the huge amounts of data slamming into me.
Proponents of Zen style minimalism are no doubt laughing hysterically about now. Heck, you don’t have to be Zen to find it hilarious. I’m sure the more disciplined, less techno-addicted among you are getting a good giggle. And yes my darling siblings, I am looking at you.
Touching all of us
Well, girls, boys and siblings (because we all know siblings are gender neutral in reality) I put it to you that this isn’t about discipline or technology and that we are all affected by it.
This is about the constant volume of information we are exposed to.
My eldest son was born in Paris in 1992 and back then it took around ten days for photos of the wee bundle of joy to get back to his grandmother and aunts and uncles in New Zealand. When that same bundle of joy got his latest tattoo (hey the bundle of joy is 20, he can do what he likes to his body), he took a photo and sent it to me by pxt. It took less than ten minutes; it probably took less than ten seconds.
My point here is that because information is so easily accessible and transmitted today, it is difficult to dodge it. When was the last time you wrote a letter or went to the library to look something up in a book? When was the last time you didn’t check your phone or your voicemail or inbox… just to make sure you hadn’t missed something important? When did you last walk the dog… without your cell phone in your pocket? When did you last go 24 hours without checking to make sure you hadn’t missed some vital piece of … information.
I know, I know – the kids need to be able to get in touch. That job might come through. The gorgeous hottie from Saturday might have found your number in her handbag. You’re preaching to the choir. I’m a writer – I thrive on information. Research, social media, blogs – gimme, gimme, gimme.
The thing is though, we have become conditioned to need this endless supply of information. We text, we pxt, we message, we skype, we facebook, we tweet, we pin, we link – all so we don’t miss out on the massive volumes of data floating around we need to know about.
Or do we?
Do we really need to know? And if we do need to know – do we need to know now? Some things yes. Most things, probably not. It won’t hurt us or anyone else if we don’t read, respond, or react for an hour… or six. Obviously this doesn’t apply to emergency situations – you know I am not alluding to those right? Right. Just checking.
So what’s the answer?
It’s hard to say. I’m not convinced there is a one size fits all solution. What will work for one person, may not work for someone else. Personally I don’t care if I never actually speak on a telephone again; plenty of my friends find that to be yet another indication of my questionable sanity.
I think the best thing we can do is be aware of the potential for being overwhelmed and have some loose frameworks that help us identify when it is happening and take even minor steps to try and combat the sensory overload.
1. Be disciplined – And sadly I am not referring to the fun kind. Only check your email at certain times of the day. Set up an auto reply telling people you do this and you will soon find they don’t start texting or phoning to find out why you didn’t instantly return their email. Most of them, I suspect, will be incredibly impressed with your efficiency.
2. Beware the email black hole – I know you know what I mean. You answer an email and move on to the next. By the time you have answered Email 2, a reply has come back from Email 1 – and you reply to that. As it whooshes off into cyber space, you follow a link in Email 3 that reminds you of something you needed to tell Email 2 so you send them another reply. Before you know it, it’s lunchtime and you’re only half way through your inbox.
As a writer, email black holes are the bane of my life. So I’ve come up with a nifty new strategy. I check my email on my iPhone and I file it instantly – if I don’t need to do anything with it I delete it immediately. If I need to act on it (reply, perform an action or whatever…) I drop it in the IMPORTANT folder. I leave it there until later when I deal with it from my laptop. Why deal with it later? Because I can then deal with it effectively and efficiently – if in fact it needs to be dealt with at all. Only if it’s time urgent do I deal with it from my phone. Hey, it works for me.
3. Unsubscribe, unlike, unfollow – anyone or any business that you are not actually active interested in subscribing to, liking, or following. If like me you are something of a social media junky this can be a bit scary – but in fact it’s incredibly helpful. Who cares if they tweet you unfollowed them or unliked them? You’re clearly not engaged enough for it to matter – your time is valuable, use it on relationships and information that add value to everyone, including yourself.
4. Turn off – Yes turn off. Turn off your phone, your computer, your iPod, your iPad, your television, your radio and your alarm clock. Ignore the newspaper. Go for a walk. Bake cookies. Walk the dog. Eat something yummy. Weed the garden. You can head down to the nearest ice cream parlour and eat hot fudge sundaes all day long if you want. I don’t even mind if you say the crazy writer on the Internet told you to. Just take some time out of the information stream for a while – even if it’s only an hour. Trust me, you’ll feel better. And you will find it so much easier to cope with information when you come back to it. Weird but true!
The bottom line is technology is here to stay and that’s a good thing. But yes Virginia even the most addicted among us can get through a day – okay maybe just an hour – without checking in, updating, tweeting, stumbling or linking. It can even be fun sometimes.
I think it’s called having a life…