We humans co-evolve with our tools. We change our tools, and then our tools change us. Writing, invented thousands of years ago, is a grand whopper of a tool, and I have no doubt that it changed us dramatically. Five hundred years ago, Gutenberg’s invention led to a significant step-change in the cost of books. Physical books ushered in a new way of collaborating and learning. Lately, networked tools such as desktop computers, laptops, cell phones and PDAs have changed us too. They’ve shifted us more toward information snacking, and I would argue toward shorter attention spans. I value my BlackBerry—I’m convinced it makes me more productive—but I don’t want to read a three-hundred-page document on it. Nor do I want to read something hundreds of pages long on my desktop computer or my laptop. As I’ve already mentioned in this letter, people do more of what’s convenient and friction-free. If our tools make information snacking easier, we’ll shift more toward information snacking and away from long-form reading. Kindle is purpose-built for long-form reading. We hope Kindle and its successors may gradually and incrementally move us over years into a world with longer spans of attention, providing a counterbalance to the recent proliferation of info-snacking tools.
As a reader, I'm supportive of Bezos' attempt to give reading the advantages of the electronic age, but I can't help wondering if he is entirely right about the impact of tools on how we read. Perhaps it isn't just the tools that nudge us away from long-form reading and towards information snacking. Could information snacking in fact be a by-product of the pace of modern life? Or does the abundance of available information at our fingertips force us to find faster, more efficient ways of retrieving and reviewing what we need?
Wikipedia's article on Information Foraging, which appears to draw on the work of Peter Pirolli and Jakob Nielsen, notes that once users have been trained by search engines to go to a variety of sites to gather information, they will be reluctant to invest much time on a single site. Instead they make quick strategic raids to collect specific information and then leave the site.
If information snacking and short attention spans are an unavoidable part of the knowledge terrain of the 21st century, this leads to some interesting questions for law firm knowledge management:
- Are we providing lawyers with tools that encourage information snacking over long-form reading and analysis? (Bloggers and Twitterers may want to take the Fifth on this one.)
- Are there risk management issues arising from the increasing tendency to engage in information snacking?
- If information snacking by lawyers is a bad thing, how do we counteract it?
- If information snacking is inevitable, how do we adjust our KM systems to accommodate it?
As we deploy increasingly more powerful search engines within our firms, we give lawyers the ability to find more information with Google-like ease. And that information is fragmented, providing a perfect opportunity for information snacking. Perhaps the most important thing knowledge management systems can do now is to ensure they provide adequate context for and connection among these fragments so that we diminish some of the negative side effects that result from information snacking.