NZ: Please tell us a little about yourself. What is it you do? How would you define the main passion that drives your work?
LA: I am a digital consultant, and my passion is to understand how people interact and behave online. To that end I work in digital and social media analysis, using analytics and data science to understand human behavior. I am trained as a political scientist as well. I run a couple of digital and research consultancy companies, that help their clients understand the consumer tech landscape.
NZ: How and when did you become engaged in the battle against Information Overload?
LA: Probably when I was a child and got my first Nintendo in the 1980s… my Mom saw I was overusing it, and send me to play outside instead. But in 2013 I engaged in this professionally; that’s when I started to see the neurological and psychological aspects of Information Overload, as well as its economic impact. I got there through introspection: I’d been using computers every day since 2005, and I just started to notice the impact on my body and mind. Seeing that, I started to try and understand the neurological effect of trying to manage too much information.
NZ: What is the essence of Digital Mindfulness?
LA: The meaning of the term has changed over time. I can say with confidence now that it is about helping people and businesses to understand their digital present moment; where they and the ecosystem are right now, and how to develop from that digital experiences that are more human and more humane. The world is awash with digital information, and people and companies respond by trying to produce even more. If you are digitally mindful you analyze what you are trying to achieve and how to express it in a way that develops your humanity.
The best example of a digitally mindful company is Google, which is instilling new guidelines and compliance rules for advertisers to show less adverts that destroy people’s attention, and more that create better, meaningful engagement with the brand. Similarly, Facebook’s new algorithm is now pushing for promoting connections with family and friends in preference to those with businesses. These companies realized that it’s not just time spent on the site that matters, it’s the quality of the ads, so less time but better aligned ads deliver more business value. They are engineering a higher quality of attention.
NZ: Are the best approaches to resolve Information Overload found through technology, behavior, or other factors?
LA: The technological perspective would be the preferred approach, because we can control it – spend money on the tech solution and deploy it. We have AI tools, we have Machine Learning models, that can learn to discern what matters to you. It’s not yet perfect but it’s useful. Then there is behavior, but it takes a really long time to instill any habit, so long term that is not a useful strategy. Interesting approaches are taken by people looking at non-traditional fields, for example in the business strategy literature and psychological literature we see links being studied between strategy, organizational psychology, and the technology.
For example: I just hosted an online conference where we examined what role technology will play for the employees, and we found that you can link personality types to email flow. This is fascinating. For some reason, email seems to be an ideal tool for people who have a high level of neuroticism. Once you train the models behind the email product so it can understand how email is being used, taking the psychological types into account, and factor this in, user stress levels go down, and happiness will go up. You train a machine to be mindful by giving it an understanding of human psychology!
NZ: What role do you think AI methods will play in the productivity domain?
LA: At this time I believe AI still has some big challenges to address, because to make us more productive it would have to gain a deep understanding of human behavior, emotion, psychology, and the momentary state of mind of the user, what is called Affective Computing. I don’t think AI will eventually supplant people or get rid of them, but it will help people to do their jobs a lot better. In my job, I expect to be ultimately supported by AI that will help me sift through the noise and home in on the insights quickly. So AI would help me think better and get to the right data points. It will become an extension of my mind, creativity, imagination, help me create better narratives for my clients; we already begin to see that. AI will perhaps help us understand human behavior at a far deeper level, which I find very exciting. Until now research depended on self-reported data from people; affective computing, smart environments, and the like may collect meaningful data without disrupting people’s attention.
NZ: What do you see in the future of electronic communications? Will the overload just continue to grow? Or will there be a major change that will make today’s email obsolete?
LA: I was reading that Apple expects to release 3 new phones because its iPhone 10 was not selling well. Innovation in smartphones is starting to taper off; people are keeping their phones for longer. I think people are beginning to spend less time on email and on their digital devices. They prefer information to be more contextual and more on demand. People are naturally stepping away from the Information Overload, from Social Media, from their phones. There is an opportunity here for companies who get better at delivering information people want when they need it (for example, via RFID and Beacons). Contextual, behavioral, psychologically-aligned mailing will be the coming thing.
NZ: Do you see a difference in the manifestations and solutions of IO in the younger millennial generation and beyond?
LA: This is not a generational question, it’s a usage question, I think. I don’t see a cohort difference. When people, of any age, have had enough and want to step away they will just turn off ringing and vibration for a few hours. Unfortunately, people who work in a tech ambient often don’t know how to do that.
NZ: Can you share with our readers one or two “best practices” they can adopt to become happier and more productive?
LA: I agree with Facebook and Google that the quality of one’s attention determines the quality of the online experience. You have to cultivate and protect the attention you have. One thing is to curate the mobile device’s home screen. Apps that are off the first screen are used less, so – if you want to reduce Facebook use, move it off that screen. Put there things you really need to use. I’ve been using Instagram less since demoting it from my home screen.
I strongly recommend the app Moment (inthemoment.io) – it shows you how much time you spend on your phone in each app during the day. This really helps.
NZ: Please share any additional thoughts you have on these matters.
LA: I think that I’m really optimistic about the future, if we can use our reason and use the information we have to examine our environment critically – I think that’s really important. For instance I read that Lloyd’s bank will spend GBP 3B on digital transformation – and it would be a shame if they did not address the mindfulness and overload thing. Companies really should include these matters as they evolve. This will shape not only how we live but also how our children and their children will live.