The more pressing, if more complex, task of our digital age, then, lies not in figuring out what comes after the yottabyte, but in cultivating contact with an increasingly technologically formed world. In order to understand how our lives are already deeply formed by technology, we need to consider information not only in the abstract terms of terrabytes and zettabytes, but also in more cultural terms. How do the technologies that humans form to engage the world come in turn to form us? What do these technologies that are of our own making and irreducible elements of our own being do to us? The analytical task lies in identifying and embracing forms of human agency particular to our digital age, without reducing technology to a mere mechanical extension of the human, to a mere tool. In short, asking whether Google makes us stupid, as some cultural critics recently have, is the wrong question. It assumes sharp distinctions between humans and technology that are no longer, if they ever were, tenable.
If you think about the concept of data, the value lies in the meaning of the data, not the data itself. Chad Wellmon explains in his essay entitled “Why Google Isn’t Making Us Stupid…or Smart” that we need to frame the data and craft the human experience around the data. By creating this crafted framework, only then can we derive meaning.
The concept of crafting experience is at the heart of designing usable software. All software deals in data, but it’s how you are able to use and understand the data that makes the software effective. There are a variety of concepts around usability, from efficiencies to visualizations to pure functionality, but the cohesive framework problem lies at the core of each usability specialization.
One potential problem from the omnipresent issue of data overload is decision fatigue. Jonn Tierney describes decision fatigue thusly:
The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways. One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, tweet that photo! What could go wrong?) The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing. Instead of agonizing over decisions, avoid any choice. Ducking a decision often creates bigger problems in the long run, but for the moment, it eases the mental strain.
Any software that can simplify or streamline this decision making process around pertinent data is helpful; anything else is not. As Wellmon writes, this issue is not new. We’ve been presented with information overload with each new technological advent. And, the chronicle of Theuth and Thamus in Plato’s Phaedrus captures the essence of the issue…that we may succumb to mistaking information for wisdom and to make of people “…they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.“