Thirty years ago, Back to the Future was released at movie theaters throughout the United States. Starting Michael J. Fox, the summer science fiction blockbuster portrayed fantastic concepts such as time travel while the sequel released a few years later depicted amazing technology that would be available in the seemingly distant future of 2015. While flying automobiles capable of time travel have yet to appear in suburbia, our lives are in fact full of electronics providing access to information that would have been unthinkable in the 1980s.
With technological marvels available at the fingertips of nearly everyone in rich countries, someone back in 1985 might have expected that individuals in “knowledge based” industries would be more productive than ever by 2015. Surely the flood of information and stimulus would cause people to get much more done in less time and have far more time to spend with their families and devote to recreational pursuits!
Those Were the Days …
The sarcasm might be obvious to a contemporary reader but perhaps surprising to someone suddenly transported from 1985 to 2015. Let’s say that the time traveler is an individual investor who enjoys spending several evenings per week and most Saturdays researching securities. How would the investor have gone about this activity in 1985? He would most likely be an avid reader of the Wall Street Journal and Barron’s, both of which would arrive in paper form at his doorstep. Being an early riser, the investor would sometimes have to wait until the paper was delivered at 8am on Saturday to begin reading Barron’s. It would sometimes be difficult to get through the newspapers before getting to the library exactly at opening time at 10am in order to be first in line to peruse the latest Value Line Investment Survey which, of course, would also be in paper form.
If a specific security sparked an interest, our enterprising investor would need to obtain SEC filings. The nascent EDGAR system began collecting data in 1984 but practical considerations would have probably led our investor to wait until Monday morning to contact his full service broker in order to have a paper copy of the SEC filings sent to him via the US Postal Service. With some luck, the filings might arrive by the end of the week in time to review the following Saturday. After reviewing the SEC filings, perhaps the next step of the research process would be to look for newspaper reports concerning the company in question over the previous five years. Luckily microfiche could provide that information assuming that the library, which was under constant budget pressure, maintained subscriptions to the relevant publications. Hopefully the microfiche reader would be available, as it normally would be except for when the local high school students monopolized it for term paper research.
Having been transported to 2015, our fictional investor would be jumping head over heels with delight once he realizes that access to information is available at his fingertips on multiple tiny devices as well as desktop computers with unimaginably sharp displays. There is no longer any need to wait for physical copies of anything in order to research investments. One need not physically move at all in order to review the library’s online Value Line Investment Survey and nearly all accumulated human knowledge is available at low or no cost on the internet.
Surely our investor will now be so much more productive that he will either be able to research the same number of investments in a tiny fraction of the time or vastly increase the number of investment possibilities to consider! So much more time on weekends will be available for golf, tennis, and time with the family!
The Dark Side
Equipped with a modern computer with a large high resolution screen, the latest iPad and iPhone and even the new Apple Watch, our investor settles into his home office on Saturday morning to research investment opportunities. As before, he starts by reviewing the Wall Street Journal and Barron’s, but this time on his iPad rather than on paper and he can start at 6am rather than 8am! However, while reviewing a Barron’s feature story, our investor is somewhat startled to see a message notification on the iPad informing him that his boss has just sent an urgent email regarding a change that must be made to a presentation scheduled for Monday afternoon.
In the world of 2015, our surprised investor learns that professionals are usually expected to be available to the boss on nights and weekends (and sometimes 24/7), as facilitated by email and text messages. Still, the presentation is nothing major to worry about and can be dealt with at the office on Monday morning or perhaps on Sunday evening. Back to Barron’s! But suddenly there’s a weird buzzing sensation on his wrist – an urgent notification from the CNBC app on his Apple Watch! One of his current companies just announced that the CFO has resigned to pursue “various personal interests” effective immediately. That can’t be good! It must be investigated immediately! Soon the phone is buzzing with text messages, more haptic feedback is triggered by the watch, and distractions keep coming all morning … by mid afternoon, the interesting company our investor started reading about shortly after 6am seems like a distant and unimportant memory and, of course, has not been pursued at all.
Less Can Be More
One need not be a Luddite to recognize the often pernicious impact of immediate access to all sorts of information in our daily lives. We are flooded with stimulus that encourages us to never focus entirely on one activity, whether in our professional or personal lives. Despite much scientific research indicating that multi-tasking can not only be harmful from a cognitive perspective but actually result in less work getting done, our competitive instincts lead us to brag about being able to “walk and chew gum at the same time”. Appearing to not be “multi-task capable” can be a career limiting in many organizations despite the evidence that focus leads to better results.
The views expressed here are hardly groundbreaking and many experts have recognized the harmful cognitive effects of distractions and information overload. Specific to the internet, there are now a variety of tools available to strip out the actual content from websites to allow a reader to focus on the content rather than the formatting or the ancillary noise such as advertisements, excessive graphics and animations.
But why should tools be required to make a typical website user friendly for single-tasking users who wish to devote all of their attention to the content at hand? Many websites have economic models that require placement of numerous advertisements in many locations. Very few websites can charge anything for content so advertising is often the only revenue generating possibility. However, some sites have adopted needlessly noisy and complicated formats for no reason other than seeking to appear “modern” or to emulate other sites.
This seems rather pointless.
If advertisements and complexity are not required for a site’s economic model, they should simply be eliminated. Accordingly, The Rational Walk has adopted a much simpler format that will hopefully be more readable for users who want to focus on the content. The only “advertisements” that now exist on The Rational Walk are links to books on Amazon.com which appear within book reviews and other articles. This should be relatively unobtrusive for most readers.
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