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Information Asphyxiation

Procrastination, distraction and the digital artist

We start with a simple domestic story:

I meticulously load up the dishwasher, ensuring that every dirty plate is facing the “spray-of-faith” (we don’t really know what goes on behind that closed door). Then I top up the little receptacle with the phosphate-free soap du jour, irresponsibly run the adjacent tap until the water flows hot, and head off to my studio to work.

After a couple of hours there — accumulating more technical information, evaluating some new plug-ins, and re-sorting sound files into new sub-categories — I return to the kitchen to make a well-deserved cup of coffee.

The dishwasher is silent, its important work no doubt finished. I open the door to remove my favourite cup and pause a moment, anticipating the steamy clean odour of another washing-up well done.

Instead, I inhale the odours of stale garlic, yesterday’s fish, and sour milk. Cursing, I close the door, run the water (irresponsibly) once again, and — this time summoning all my powers of concentration — actually press the “start” button.

I then retrieve a nondescript old cup from the cupboard, hastily brew my coffee (too weak), and retreat to my studio again. To check email.

It’s important to distinguish this problem — this “failure to press start” — from both Parkinson’s Law and simple procrastination. Parkinson’s Law says we will use up all the available time to finish a task. But if we have trouble starting it, obviously we may also fail to complete it. Calling it simple procrastination is equally unsatisfactory. Yes, the symptom might be a kind of procrastination. But the underlying cause may be a web of distractions that unreasonably prolong the preparations for — and the completion of — creative tasks.

Of course, deferring creative work is not necessarily bad: artistic production may sometimes appear to be quick and spontaneous, but that appearance is often the result of lengthy — and very necessary — periods of incubation and preparation. We need time to become comfortable with new directions, and we need sufficient information — of the right kind — to undertake new procedures.

The difficulty arises when preparation chronically displaces doing — that is, when the pursuit, accumulation and management of information becomes an inadvertent end unto itself, and replaces creative work.

When information is relatively scarce, we seem to treat it carefully — scrutinizing its sources, filing it with care and ingesting it with interest. We behave like researchers.

But when we have an abundance — or an excess — of information, our attitude can be completely different. We may become cavalier about sources: “Someone went to the trouble to post it on their site, so it’s probably right.” We hoard rather than review: “There’s too much to sort through now: I’ll just throw it in my ‘check later’ file.” In other words, we behave like collectors.

Meticulous research may not always lead to creation, but passively collecting information is even less likely to do so.

Let’s step back for a moment and look at what is necessary to make artistic work. We have already encountered some practical needs — sufficient information, skills, time, and action. But to make our ideas manifest to the world in some kind of objective form — to take that action — artists also need faith or belief in their own work.

And the constant barrage of information about almost everything to do with our artistic practice can easily undermine our self-confidence, distract us from action and asphyxiate our will to create.

To use a rather dark metaphor, information asphyxiation is like carbon monoxide poisoning. Until it reaches a toxic level, it is often undetectable, apart from a bit of light-headedness. (And that could just be a by-product of Facebook). We — or in this case our creative energy — may succumb without even realizing that something is very wrong.

Let us look at some of the ways we end up in this situation.


Insufficient Redundancy

Software applications are the core of our digital tool-kits: it is understandable that we admire elegant features or slick user interfaces. But that may also encourage us to acquire something new, even when the application we already use delivers the same functions well. We then end up with multiple applications that do largely the same thing. The result: more files, more choices, less creation time.

Similarly, we will seldom turn down more information about how to use our tools, even if it may largely duplicate information we already have. Complexity and constant change create insecurity, and we don’t dare miss a chance for that essential tip that might transform our workflow.

Meticulous research may not always lead to creation, but passively collecting information is even less likely to do so.

Composers may also collect sound materials indiscriminately. The old admonition to “edit before you press record” was a brilliant way to focus our listening, control costs and reduce the acquisition of redundant material. But with ever-cheaper and increasingly massive data storage — both in our recording devices and attached to our computers — we are much less likely to worry about excess material.

And we may indeed catch a few more special moments than we did with a more conservative approach. But we also accumulate a great deal more material overall — material that must be evaluated, sorted, tagged and filed.

Backup files are equally susceptible to redundancy. We know we need backups. But do we really need that fourth copy? After all, the odds of losing the first three in simultaneous fires in our studios, our safe-deposit box, and that server farm in Arizona, are something like winning the lottery. But information accumulation usually triumphs over rational thinking, and in all four areas — applications, information, sound material and backups — our instinct is likely to tell us that “more” is always better.

No Free Lunch

We all love free stuff. Free digital stuff is even better, because we don’t trip over it (physically, at least). So when developers offer free trials of their software, it’s hard to resist. But, as we know, there is No Free Lunch: even a quick taste comes with a price.

We pay with our time: installing, evaluating, and eventually removing, the trial version. We pay in clutter: dozens of extra files installed — including some that may not be removed later by un-installers — and growing lists of applications and plug-ins to choose from (some of which don’t even function fully).

Finally, and perhaps more seriously, we pay in loss of focus: every software trial that does not turn into a useful addition to our active tool-kit is simply another obstacle to creating our work.

Opportunity Knocks — Again

The ubiquitous software “deal of the day” is just as hazardous — and not even free. But software is often modestly priced — so we may think: ’I don’t really need this, but it looks good — and hey, until midnight it’s only 10 bucks.” In an instant, purchased and downloaded — and, shortly after, filed away and forgotten. Makers of specialized software, such as plugins and virtual instruments, also run time-limited direct promotions that encourage premature or unnecessary purchases or upgrades.

In fact, almost every vendor of digital content — software, e-books, music, training media, etc. — understands the power of combining “time-limited” offers, targeted customer lists and a barrage of cheap, virtual advertising. In response, we accumulate more products that soon become digital clutter — and eventually digital waste.

Digital waste may not make environmental headlines, but it can be very unhealthy for our personal creative ecosystems.

Falling off the Thin Edge

Working on the technological bleeding edge only adds to the impact. Once our shiny new tools fall off that very thin edge (as they inevitably do), their value to us plummets too. Then we discard them and begin the cycle again. (Rinse and repeat, as the shampoo bottle always directs.)

And we don’t necessarily have to buy anything to sustain a loss. Simply acquiring and managing information about what is currently occupying that bleeding edge will cost us — in valuable time and in energy that might otherwise be spent making work.


Blinded by the Spotlight

When we use modern search tools with the ever-growing data we now have access to — both locally and remotely — the results can be overwhelming. We simply find more information matching our search criteria than we can efficiently process. For Mac users, it’s like being “Blinded by the Spotlight”.

Boolean search operators can focus the results and reduce the problem, but over time refinements to the search process will be outweighed by constant growth in the available data to search. We can try filing our data more meticulously when we first create or gather it, or limit our searches to locations where we suspect the target data likely resides. Tagging or detailed metadata can also help, particularly for specialized information such as sound libraries.

But these approaches do not address the underlying problem: whether spent wading through search results, meticulously tagging, or carefully creating (and using) elaborate filing hierarchies, time spent handling excessive information is still time lost to creation.

“Déjà vu all over again”: Zombie Information

Even if we do organize our data reasonably well, we will likely continue to accumulate duplicates. Need to find a particular user manual you filed away last year, on an external drive? It’s probably quicker to simply download another copy. Not sure if you have the latest version of something? Download an up-to-date copy to use now — and compare the two “another time”. Not comfortable working on the original version of a document? Make a duplicate and set aside the original to deal with “later”.

“Later”, when the dupes pop up like clones in our searches, we’ll waste time trying to determine if there are any real differences among them. Or we give up and download yet another copy. And “later”, when we finally try to clean up redundant files, we will probably overlook copies in our backups or on our offline drives. But don’t worry: they’ll be back.

Yogi Berra might have called this problem “déjà vu all over again.” But in deference to the current craze for the undead in popular media, I prefer to think of it as zombie information.


Storage Wars

Clutter problems may be helped by ruthlessly tossing out, or by being disciplined about acquisition of new “stuff” — or, in serious cases, by being featured on a reality TV show. But a more common response is to deflect and defer the problem by simply dumping our stuff into storage.

Locally attached hard drives are comparable to over-stuffed filing cabinets. And that heap of seldom-connected drives and pile of data CDs are similar to the stack of cardboard boxes tucked away in a damp corner of the basement.

What if we really want to get this stuff out of our space but cannot completely discard it just yet?

Free cloud storage, such as iCloud, SkyDrive or DropBox initially looks great. But that’s much like dumping our physical stuff with friends. They may be initially willing, but at some point you may discover they’ve changed their minds, moved to Morocco on a whim and left your stuff on the street.

Paid cloud storage is more like commercial self-storage lockers. You do have the relative security of a commercial contract, but the onus is now on you to remember to pay your bill regularly — or end up with your stuff on another reality TV show.

Cloud and Fog

Keeping information in “the cloud” is certainly useful for active syncing among devices. But for data storage, it can be difficult to distinguish between cloud and fog.

Not only do we have more potential storage space — for more redundant information — we also have more storage locations to administer. To complicate matters, some applications support only specific cloud services, and some cloud services do not support particular types of data very well.

Managing these additional layers of complexity requires time. And — at the risk of sounding like a looped sound file — that is time not spent on creative work.

Virtual Agoraphobia

Sometimes we need to place information on the publicly accessible internet. But the ’net is notoriously sticky, and that can lead to a syndrome I call virtual agoraphobia — a fear of the much-too-open and much-too-persistent marketplace that is the internet.

Anything published in a physical form is potentially persistent too, of course, but with its indeterminate scope and capacity for infinite cloning, the virtual world can simply feel too out of control and too hazardous. We become reluctant to share our information.

At first glance, this hardly seems to relate to information asphyxiation. After all, if we are less willing to share information, surely we are reducing the problem, not contributing to it. At one level, perhaps. But if this fear of information persistence inhibits us from promoting and disseminating our work, the malady is essentially the same: excessive information impeding creative activity.


(Self-) Help is on the Way

In my local public library system, a recent search on the word “clutter” in non-fiction yielded 125 titles. The keyword “organized” produced over two thousand more — and that was after removing the phrase “organized crime” from the results list.

Most books seemed to offer very little help for digital clutter. But one did appear to specifically target it: Getting Organized in the Google Era: How to get stuff out of your head, find it when you need it, and get it done right, written by former Google executive Douglas C. Merrill.

With his 25-word title, Merrill didn’t seem too concerned about verbal clutter. But he makes a heart-felt pitch for conquering digital clutter solely with the aid of Google — immediately bringing to mind metaphors about eggs and baskets.

It appears that those of us looking for credible help with our digital clutter are still largely on our own.


Information clutter is clearly neither a time-limited problem nor one that can be conquered in a single battle. So how do we solve this problem?

It was easy enough to identify some of its manifestations — and knowing the enemy is certainly helpful. But knowing is not enough: we need action too. Re-organizing our data, buying an extra hard drive or two, or getting a couple of additional gigabytes on DropBox may all provide some symptomatic relief. But a cure is more elusive.

With our creative lives so inextricably linked to our digital tool-kits, permanently disconnecting is not a practical option. For some, the solution may be in rigidly scheduling online time, unsubscribing from mailing lists and having separate user accounts — or better still separate computer systems — for our creative work. We can then freely clutter the personal system but keep the creative one clean (in theory). A select few might even succeed with simple self-discipline — choosing not to accumulate unnecessarily, and meticulously sorting, tagging — and deleting. (I don’t think I’ve met any of you yet).

For the rest of us, a cure will likely be very gradual: small, cumulative changes to our work patterns and incremental adjustments to our information expectations.

Final Thoughts

But let’s pretend for a moment that we finally do overcome all the internal and external distractions and do manage to file and sort all our information efficiently, turn off the constant newsfeed and actually make our work. What happens now?

Unfortunately, our troubles are not quite over. We must still — somehow — make our work stand out and be noticed. And that is no easy task in an era of what seems like infinite reach by infinite numbers of artists doing infinite work.

There must be an app for that. Or better still, an online service — maybe with a 30-day free trial!

If you’ll excuse me, I’ll go online now and check (after I put away some dishes).

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