Useful thoughts on attention and information overload from 1971 (via Simon, Deutsch, Shubik)

Back in 2015, I was blogging less and using a homegrown personal wiki more. And I was thinking about this problem of collaboration and attention.

Going through my notes on the wiki from that time, I realized a bunch of my thinking had been formed by a book chapter from 1971 that I read in 2015, a transcription of a presentation and panel by Herbert Simon, Karl Deutsch, and Martin Shubik. Re-reading it I’m struck that for all its faults it provides insights that are even more relevant in 2018 than 2015. Here’s some ported notes and highlights:

Simon: a wealth of information = a scarcity of attention

Simon’s key contribution in the talk is to push the conversation from the idea of information overload (supply) to the problem of attention. And his key point is that as information increases, attention decreases:

[I]n an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.

Simon: the cost of information is borne more by the consumer (in time) than the producer

Simon uses a news metaphor to make his point — the cost of information is mostly in the time to process it (when aggregated over many people) rather than produce it:

In an information-rich world, most of the cost of information is the cost incurred by the recipient. It is not enough to know how much it costs to produce and transmit information; we must also know how much it costs, in terms of scarce attention, to receive it. I have tried bringing this argument home to my friends by suggesting that they recalculate how much the New York Times (or Washington Post) costs them, including the cost of reading it. Making the calculation usually causes them some alarm, but not enough for them to cancel their subscriptions. Perhaps the benefits still outweigh the costs.

Simon: scarcity of attention must be a design principle for organizations and technology, but it is usually overlooked

The design principle that attention is scarce and must be preserved is very different from a principle of “the more information the better.” The aforementioned Foreign Office thought it had a communications crisis a few years ago. When events in the world were lively, the teletypes carrying incoming dispatches frequently fell behind. The solution: replace the teletypes with line printers of much greater capacity. No one apparently asked whether the IPS’s (including the Foreign Minister) that received and processed messages from the teletypes would be ready, willing, and able to process the much larger volume of messages from the line printers.

We overlook these things because we have a mythology of information poverty:

Our attitudes toward information reflect the culture of poverty. We were brought up on Abe Lincoln walking miles to borrow (and return!) a book and reading it by firelight.

Deutsch on the operations of attention

Deutsch makes some welcome corrections to Simon, who in many remarks not detailed above is far too trusting of technology. (The DDT example Simon uses is particularly painful).

Part of his point is attention is really a series of operations much bigger than just a spotlight of focus. A person that gives their attention has to (according to Deustch):

  • recognize loosely what it is one should pay attention to (the target), such as things unfamiliar, strangers, or things that do not fit
  • track the object of attention, and keep attention on it
  • interpret the object and ask what it resembles
  • decide which response to the object is most appropriate, and what should be done about it
  • carry out the response
  • accept feedback, and learn from the results of the response whether it was the rightone and how future responses should be corrected.

Deutsch argues that when you look at the whole cycle it involves not just attention but memory, and further, that the problem of filters is going to be solved partially by accepting some amount of redundancy. The reasoning is a bit complex, but familiar to people nowadays I think. Because institutional memory in organizations is expensive and a bit zero-sum you need redundancy in organizations and a networked, less hierarchical approach to information. This is turn prevents relevant information from being eliminated due to single bottlenecks.

Shubik on optimum information systems

I have become a fan of Simon over the past few years, so the insights in his observations are not surprising to me (more surprised by some of his oversights, actually). Shubik, on the other hand, hasn’t even been on my radar. But he’s good! Here he is on optimum information systems:

An optimum information system is not necessarily the one which processes the most data. An optimum system for protecting the average stock- holder does not supply him with full, detailed financial accounts. In fact, one can easily swindle the unwary by supplying them with financial details and footnotes they do not understand. It is now possible to bombard a generally uncomprehending public with myriad details on pollution, the pros and cons of insecticides, the value and dangers of irrigation schemes, on-the-spot reports of rioting and looting, televised moon landings, suicides, murders, and historical prices of thousands of stocks and commodities.

Shubik on the coming of computer network-based mobs, and, maybe, Gamergate

So for people not hip to what 1971 was about, you had “time-sharing” computers — which were multi-user mainframes mostly — and monitors, and a lot of thought was put into what happened when TV gets hooked into systems that allowed instant two-way communication, feedback, and interactivity. Shubik wonders in particular what mobs look like when the virtual is felt as real and demagogic leaders pair the instant feedback of communications systems with the viscerality of the a TV based medium. It’s of course a weird version, based on tech of the time, but still an amazing quote:

Consider some of the possible dangers. What is the first great TV, time-sharing demagogue going to look like? How will he put to use such extra features of modern communications as virtually instantaneous feedback? When will a TV screen with the appropriate sensory feelings be able to portray the boss behind his mahogany desk (two thousand miles away) who fires or chastises his employee, and makes him feel just as small, and his palms just as clammy with sweat, as if he were in the room with him? When will the first time-shared riot occur? Orson Welles came close in the thirties with a fairly good radio panic. Current techniques for mob control require physical proximity. In the Brave New World, will we still regard a mob as a great number of closely packed people, or will isolated mobs interacting via TV consoles and operating over large areas be more efficient?

Oettinger summarizes Simon’s contribution

Anthony Oettinger summarizes Simon’s contribution nicely:

Simon has offered three very deep, important, fundamental principles that shed light on things I had not perceived clearly:

  1. attention is a scarce commodity
  2. information technology allows effort to be displaced from possession, storage, and accumulation of information to its processing, even if the information is located in the world itself rather than in the file
  3. filtering and organizing the environment for persons whose attention is scarce are critical.

It remains for others to apply these general principles to particular organizations and explore their political and economic implications.

Deustch’s criticism of Simon

I have reservations about Simon’s enthusiasm, in the name of simplification and economy of thought, for throwing out vast amounts of what universities now teach. Much of what we learn in social science used to be interpreted against our knowledge of history. If we throw out too much historical data, many of our abstractions may lose meaning. A critical design problem for education is to determine the amount of memories from the past needed for producing and interpreting new information.

In general, Simon makes a very good case for the design aims of technology and education, but is not particularly good on technological prediction, whereas Shubik — even in asides — is incredibly prescient about technology and its risks. Deustch, in turn, serves as a good corrective on Simon’s penchant for an absolute leanness of process and storage — believing that memory plays more of a role in effective processing than Simon will admit, and pushing the idea that a more conservative approach to change in the face of human systems may be warranted — slow down taking action when information is inconclusive. (Even here, the results are fascinating, with Deustch using the example of how population is a more pressing issue than climate change, since the effects of overpopulation were well established but climate science murky).

The three parts, taken together make interesting reading, even today — or, perhaps, especially today. You can check out the whole thing here.

We’re Thinking About This Backwards

One of my great loves is Dewey. I share his belief that an educated engaged populace is crucial to democracy and democracy is crucial to the profession of those teaching in democracies. I think part of what we need to do is make sure all citizens have the tools they need to sort news from noise and speak truth to power.

At the same time, often when I speak to people, the questions come up — sure, media literacy is good, but how do we reach the people who drop out of high school, the people who don’t go to college. And so on.

Have I said enough that this is important? Well, here’s the other shoe dropping: our most pressing problems are not caused by Joe or Jane the Mechanic not getting a GED. They are caused by people in power — mid-level gatekeepers and up — who are allowing institutions to be corrupted by misinformation.

You can leave all the complaints about that formulation in the comments. I’ll admit that elites have always been prone to elite misinformation (see Iraq, Vietnam, Climate Change). But I would assert that such history shows the disasters that result when institutions become corrupted. The current configuration feels unique to me and other misinfo experts I talk to. The speed and frequency with which lies are created god knows where and then pushed up the chain to people with professional and political power is what’s frightening. High school dropouts are not your problem. Trump supporting gas station owners or conspiracy-minded baristas are not your problem. Your problem is the FBI agent consuming Twitter nonsense,  the politician that not only uses disinfo but comes to believe it, and the blue checkmarked mid-level elites that are unwitting vehicles pushing that stuff relentlessly into the view of those who act on it.

I started off with Dewey, and Jane the Mechanic. Here’s the relation. While mass education is good and should be pursued as a long-term solution, if I was going to target our online literacy immediately and had a limited number of seats, I would target it at everyone that will find their way to positions of influence. Politicians. Policy leads. Product managers at tech startups. Future FBI agents and social workers and department heads. I would look at the gears of democratic institutions — political, civic, administrative — and see who has their hands on the levers, from the mid-level bureaucrats to the top.

I’m committed to implementing our program broadly, but if you think the misinformation problem is Jane the Mechanic and her one vote every four years you’ve got it backwards. For immediate impact target those who make and enforce decisions and those who influence them, and stop scapegoating those without power or influence.

I need to think about this too in terms of how we grow the Digital Polarization Initiative. We’ve had good success in first-year programs, and we need to continue that. But the nature of our moment (and our limited resources) may require us to think about how to target this more efficiently as we expand. If people have some ideas of the sort of college programs we should be trying to get this training into, let me know in the comments. We probably need to also tap into the fact that the core of the American Democracy Project is still students who plan to go into those positions of influence and power and the faculty who teach them. More later I think.