Technology July/August 2014

How You’ll Get Organized

Four glimpses of a future without information overload
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Álvaro Domínguez

In the late 1970s, I was thrilled by the ability to send and receive messages through the revolutionary medium then known as “electronic mail.” At about the same time, I began to write my letters, notes, articles, and books—we didn’t yet call all such things “documents”—on a computer and store them electronically rather than on cards or papers stuffed into filing cabinets.

Since those days I have thought of the information aspects of life as an unwinnable race. With each new year and each new Moore’s Law–enabled boost in processor speed, transmission rates, storage capacity, and other elements of the information infrastructure, ever more data has come at us, ever faster. Appointments, assignments, driving directions—everything has become part of the expanding cloud of “personal information” necessary for our work and home lives.

Year by year tools for coping with the onslaught have also been improving—but more slowly. Electronic calendars, online collaboration systems, search engines and archives, and the converging technologies that make up the smartphone revolution did something, but never quite enough, to put people in control of information. “I sometimes wonder whether, with all this data, people have just given up,” Mitch Kapor, a personal-software pioneer, told me recently. “They may just have resigned themselves to living in this infinite sea of information.” Kapor first became famous as the founder of the software company Lotus and the designer of the spreadsheet application Lotus 1-2-3, but I revere him as a creator of the brilliant early personal-information program Lotus Agenda. (Agenda, which I wrote about in The Atlantic back in 1992, is a relic from the MS‑DOS age. All these years later, I keep DOS emulators on my sleek, modern MacBook Airs purely so I can run the program from time to time.)

Jokes about Siri have kept people from realizing how close voice-recognition technology is to being truly usable.

Tech entrepreneurs don’t usually sound downcast, and in fact Kapor’s overall vision of where we’re headed is upbeat. He is one of the five experts I asked to speculate about the future of personal-information technology, especially whether the race for mastery of one’s own data might someday seem winnable. The others were Esther Dyson, a longtime technology investor and analyst; David Allen, the originator of the Getting Things Done productivity system; Phil Libin, the founder and CEO of the software company Evernote; and Mark Bernstein, the chief scientist of Eastgate Systems and the designer of Tinderbox, an information-management program. Individually and collectively, their comments boiled down to: We’ve been through the worst. The next stage in information technology will put people back in control, or closer to it. More specifically, our conversations foretold:

1. The beginning of an end to the e‑mail nightmare

E-mail is indispensable, and unendurable. That is because it does not scale. Every message, as Esther Dyson has written, “represents a task—something to read, a query to answer, a meeting to schedule, a bill to pay, a request to fulfill or deny.” Thus senders can generate more tasks than recipients could possibly perform. As she told me, “The reader’s time is free to the sender, which is a huge market inefficiency.”

Dyson says that some market mechanism will reset the balance. One way or another, senders will pay a premium for recipients’ time and attention—as they did in the pre-e‑mail days, by having to request appointments or make sales calls or, at the very least, pay for postage. Phil Libin says improved filtering systems are already solving the problem. “I have 100,000 e‑mails I haven’t answered,” he said. “I know that I can’t even open 90 percent of the e‑mail I get. Am I missing something important I should see? Sure, but rarely.” The remaining challenge is to reduce “the error rate”—that is, the share of important e‑mails that he does miss. And this, Libin said, should be “an easily solvable” problem, with the help of systems that learn whom he wants to hear from, and whom he doesn’t.

2. The spread of anticipatory intelligence

Computers work best when you’re least aware that they’re working at all. Modern cars, for instance, contain the processing power of dozens of early mainframe computers. But most of the time they discreetly scan for problems and alert the driver only if they detect something—engine trouble, poor traction on slippery roads, low gas—the driver might need to address. Someday, car computers might even be powerful enough to detect texting at the wheel on the basis of irregularities in driving patterns.

There are already counterparts in the personal-information world, as simple as smartphones that shift time zones as you travel or that adjust GPS routings as traffic problems emerge. “Computing will become a lot more anticipatory,” Libin told me. “You won’t have to search for things. They will come up almost magically. The periods in the day during which you’re exposed to some sort of digital intelligence will increase until there is no time when you’re not exposed to it, in little bursts, as necessary.”

3. Better ways of getting information in, and out

“We still live in a world where if you’re serious about doing work, you have to get from your phone to a keyboard,” Kapor said. “We’re just beginning to get usable software for a small screen.”

He and Libin emphasized that jokes about Apple’s current, fallible Siri system have kept people from realizing how close voice-recognition technology is to being truly usable, and how fast the remaining gap is likely to close. “There will seem to be relatively little progress until all of a sudden it just works, and that time is coming soon,” Libin said.

Kapor told me that the spoken word will also be more and more important in conveying information in the other direction, from computer to user. “There has been a lot made of Google Glass, but they may be dealing with the wrong human sense,” he said. “The ubiquitous device may not be something that you see but something that whispers in your ear—a kind of reading glass for the ear that tells you what you need to know.”

4. The big picture at a glance, via map or dashboard

David Allen’s software goal, which he is now working toward with partners, is a “trusted orientation map” of the obligations, possibilities, information, and reminders relevant to each person at each moment of the day. A quick look would reveal the main tasks or challenges and then, Allen says, “I could zoom in or out to whatever level of detail or macro view I want.”

Mark Bernstein, who has applied some of Allen’s principles in his Tinderbox software (which, like Evernote, I use every day), emphasizes the importance of combining big-picture and detailed views. “I think this is David Allen’s core lesson,” he wrote me in an e‑mail. “You don’t want a constant litany of the thousands of things you want to get done, but you need to be able to look over the whole list from time to time. Finding ways to make your information visible without letting it get underfoot is the big challenge.”

Are such challenges too great? The world is full of sorrows, but the people I spoke with sounded confident that, in their own corner of the world, prospects were bright. “It is well known in cognitive science that if you are pessimistic, you sound ‘smarter,’ ” Libin told me. “That’s why people are more likely to listen to and repeat pessimistic assessments. But pessimism about the effects of technology is mainly a failure of imagination. We can see all of the problems but can’t imagine the new possibilities.

“I am not being naive,” Libin, who was born in Russia, said. “But the long arc of technology bends toward the more awesome.”


A Brief Chronicle of Personal Organization

History

2600 b.c.: Ancient Egyptians develop the first practical calendar, marking festivals and agricultural events.

1760s: The Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus invents the index card.

1880s: Filing cabinets become a popular way of storing documents.

1971: The first e-mail is sent (unfortunately, its contents have been forgotten).

1993: The term PDA is coined to describe Apple’s Newton MessagePad.

2006: The total volume of paper mail sent through the U.S. Postal Service peaks.

Prediction

2024: Personal devices feature voice-recognition technology that actually works.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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