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Thinking like a faucet
Can we collaborate without exhausting each other?
A simple faucet aerator costs about the same as a fancy cup of coffee, and is sure to pay for itself in a short period of time. By blocking the full flow of water through a kitchen or bathroom faucet and replacing part of the stream with air, an aerator reduces water use but also increases the utility of most streams. The water tends to come out of an aerator at a higher pressure than without -- and the air it adds will tend to improve the taste of drinking water as it pours into a glass. Moreover, by breaking apart the water stream, an aerator increases the surface area of the running water, which reduces splashing and helps it to cleanse better.
■ A faucet aerator, by putting water through a sort of straining process, can do more by giving us less. Just as that applies to the material world, so it also applies to the world of ideas. In particular, as the flow of raw information increases and the apparent pace of decision-making required in life accelerates, we need more metaphorical strainers than ever. Not only does life seem to pass quicker as an individual ages, technological improvements are also making new things happen faster.
■ The resulting paradox of this sensory overload, time compression, and seemingly unstoppable technological acceleration is that two of the most valuable skills are (1) to be able to describe matters using words, and (2) to be driven internally to go back and edit those words to make the writing shorter and more understandable.
■ We not only have innumerable tools for instantaneous digital communication (making Zoom meetings and Slack channels and direct messages into constant reminders of the ticking of the clock), but we also have people turning to computers to generate volumes of new content -- not because it's necessary, but because it's how to game the system in an age driven by Internet search engines. There really is a whole industry already developing around marketing content written by artificial intelligence. Humans are literally surrendering the effort of writing material in the hopes of generating so much "content" that it ultimately finds its way to the right customer. The result is that it's no surprise when someone confesses in a meeting, "I haven't had time to read all of that".
■ Collaboration among informed teammates is necessary to any kind of high-level productivity. As Ryan Avent wrote in his intriguing book, "The Wealth of Humans", "As technology advances -- in finance or computing or biotechnology or anything -- the ease with which any one person can become expert in multiple fields declines. Collaboration is therefore necessary whenever expertise in more than one subject is needed to make a project or a business plan work." Yet the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed to many that "Zoom fatigue" is real, driven in no small part by the cognitive load of moving from in-person contact to the artificial "places" of cyberspace.
■ And it's inescapable that even those in-person meetings tend to be inefficient. Only so much information can be communicated by people speaking to one another -- English is hard to digest at much more than 150 or 160 words per minute. By contrast, college-level reading speeds are generally closer to 400 words per minute or more. So merely moving the transmission of information from words spoken aloud to words written on the page should result in getting almost three times as much information across in the same amount of time.
■ But just as cognitive loads make it hard to get through Zoom meetings, so do they make it hard to get through complicated writing. (If you don't believe that, try reading "Ulysses" sometime. Someone once condensed the whole novel for Twitter.) It often doesn't seem like the case, but the time spent to go back through written materials to make them more digestible pays off quite a lot. And the more people involved in a collaboration or engaged in reviewing information to make a decision, the greater the leverage that results from making that material easier on the brain.
■ We live in complex times, and they're bound to grow more complex. With digital publishing tools like Substack making it possible for anyone to put out 2,000-word essays without any barriers or to generate 100-page government reports to "cover all the bases", the time has never been better for those who can put their ideas through a strainer. Just as with a kitchen faucet, sometimes you get a lot more by delivering a lot less.