Results for: complexity


The Future of Social Media: Chaos / Coherence?

What is the future for social media?

These are great days for social media. Blogs are becoming popular  and tools like Google Reader and other RSS aggregators are making it easier than ever to follow blogs and other new sources with little effort. Twitter enables us to find, follow, share and distribute ideas to the world from almost any platform. Combine tools available through mobile video and uploading capability on everything from Blackberries to iPhones to iPods to regular digital cameras and you have a panoply of opinions that are being transmitted to places like YouTube, Vimeo, and Facebook at a rate that boggles the mind.

If you’re like me, you probably get a lot of value from social media.  I don’t think I could be effective in my job if I didn’t have tools like Twitter and Google Reader at my disposal. And that says something considering I am an academic at a leading research university that has access to many of the best databases in the world.

This past week I delivered* a webinar presentation* to a group of health promotion professionals working in tobacco control. Over the span of two hours I introduced the audience* to a variety of social media tools and platforms and how they could be used to leverage the power of their constituents and their teams of colleagues for public health benefit. Along the way I was able to poll the audience and the results were pretty much what I expected: most had some familiarity with social media, but few had dived in and were creating content or using it anywhere near its potential. I suppose if they were, they wouldn’t have been on the call*. In a week we’ll have the results of the follow-up survey and (if I did my job) these numbers will shift somewhat, but not explode. In some ways, this might be a very good thing because social media could well be a case where we might want to be careful what we wish for.

Why? Right now we have more information than we can cope with (although NYU professor Clay Shirky would argue, and I mostly agree with, that our problems are more about poor filtering than too much information, which we’ve had ever since we crossed that point when there became more media sources than time to read / consume them all in a lifetime). David Weinberger argues that all information is now miscellaneous, meaning that the need for organizing information is no longer relevant because we have the tools to search-as-we-go and no longer have to sort things into piles and categories the same way we once did. To him, the problem posed by information volume is largely minor.

Both the filtering and categorizing strategies for making sense of information and generating new knowledge from social media are based on our present and past experience where very few of us actually create an substantive content in an area. But what happens if, to borrow from Clay Shirky’s recent book title, we see: here comes everybody!? It is possible that once the oldest, non-Internet-using generation passes on that we’ll have somewhere close to 100%** digital network penetration in Western societies and a continued rapid rise in developing nations. (** knowing full well that there are people who will, as now, never wish to or maybe need to adopt new technologies and will resist or deny their adoption. The ‘true’ rate will likely be closer to 90-95% as we saw with landline phones or TV’s when they were at their peak).

Right now, social media use is sitting in a place where most people are NOT engaging in it in any meaningful way way generates value for others. Perhaps they are posting a comment on a website, or maybe joining a Ning community, but otherwise the occasional Facebook update coupled with watching cats play the piano on YouTube is about all they do. They represent the ‘lurkers’ on a site; people who’s value to a community or tool is derived not by what they generate in terms of content, but by providing an audience for taking that content and applying it to other things. What happens when the cultural norms shift, they’re literacy levels increase and, for example, they start blogging seriously (even if the content isn’t “serious”) or Twittering or posting their own videos of cats playing the piano on a video-sharing site using their handheld device? Questions abound about whether we can handle the information or whether the unleashing of creative energy on such a level will create a new Renaissance in human creativity.

Internet innovator and “pioneer” of virtual reality, Jared Lanier,  feels somewhat differently from either of those positions, but certain argues that a Renaissance is not forthcoming. Jared recently published a book that advances a hypothesis that social media is making us less social, coherent as a society and quite possibly destructive to creativity and innovation rather than supporting it. In a review of the book in the Wall Street Journal, Glenn Harlan Reynolds writes:

Mr. Lanier calls his book a manifesto, but it reads more like a collection of columns and notebook entries loosely organized around a central theme. More than anything else, he worries that those whom he calls “the lords of the cloud”—huge entities such as Google and Facebook—constrict their users, creating online environments in which true individuality is curtailed in favor of the extraction of marketing data and other intelligence. The practice is not only unfair and confining, he says, but perhaps even dangerous. “Emphasizing the crowd,” Mr. Lanier writes, “means de-emphasizing individual humans . . . and when you ask people not to be people, they revert to bad moblike behaviors.” At the very least current Web arrangements encourage a shallow, lemming-like conformity of judgment.

Lanier makes some provocative points (I will admit to having not read his manifesto yet, just some columns on these ideas). Our social media structure right now works quite well because the numbers associated with the expression of Pareto’s Principle (or Power Law — which, in social media terms means that a lot of content is generated by a few, while this long tail represents the bulk of the rest of the transactions. Think: ‘the 80-20 rule’).What is interesting to consider is what happens when the truly big shift comes into social media through ubiquitious Internet, GPS, geotagging, mobile video and such.

Will we consume as we have? Will we need low information diets? Will we develop better filters? And is it even possible to create coherence from all of this or will chaos reign? And how might the science of systems and complexity help us anticipate this future and prepare us to adapt to an information landscape that is far larger than we have now?

Some food for thought. More on this to come…

* what do you call these things in the context of a webinar, where conference call meets virtual lecture + slide show? I never have been able to get the language right for this. At least, in a manner that I feel comfortable with.

behaviour changecomplexityhealth promotionpsychologypublic health

The Fallacy of New Year’s Resolutions

Happy New Year everyone!

Did you make a resolution or two to do things different this year? I suspect there are already more than a few readers who have measured 2010 by the number of resolutions that have already fallen. If so, you’re not alone. In fact, you’re probably quite normal.

New year’s resolutions don’t work in changing behaviour. In fact,  research reported by Jonah Leherer at the the Wall Street Journal’s health blog points to the problems with these annual rituals and points out that, not only do some resolutions fail to inspire change, they may just impair change. Among the research that Leherer cites is work from Roy Baumeister and his lab at Florida State University that has looked at willpower and cognition. The article reports:

In a 2007 experiment, Prof. Baumeister and his colleagues found that students who fasted for three hours and then had to perform a variety of self-control tasks, such as focusing on a boring video or suppressing negative stereotypes, had significantly lower glucose levels than students who didn’t have to exert self-control. Willpower, in other words, requires real energy.

Anyone who’s tried to quit smoking, exercise more, or suppress any kind of unhelpful thought knows that its hard work. The article cites another study that looked at the role of cognition and attention and diet:

In another experiment, Mr. Baumeister and his colleagues gave students an arduous attention task—they had to watch a boring video while ignoring words at the bottom of the screen—before asking them to drink a glass of lemonade. Half of the students got lemonade with real sugar, while the other half got a drink with Splenda. On a series of subsequent tests of self-control, the group given fake sugar performed consistently worse. The scientists argue that their lack of discipline was caused by a lack of energy, which hampered the performance of the prefrontal cortex.

Since the most popular New Year’s resolution is weight loss, it’s important to be aware that starving the brain of calories—even for just a few hours—can impact behavior. Skipping meals makes it significantly harder to summon up the strength to, say, quit cigarettes. Even moderation must be done in moderation.

When we talk of energy balance in public health we typically refer to issues related to diet and obesity, balancing energy output with energy input from calories. The above research has less to do with this directly and more about ensuring one has the psychological energy necessary to make the changes we want happen.

I’ve discussed this before when referring to organizations. Energy is important to taking information and using it, but so is applying it in a manner that fits with how change happens and on this level much of the conventional thinking fails us. In mainstream psychology, behaviour change tends to focus first on getting the right information, rationally processing it, and then transforming it into a plan of action (goal) that has structure and clearly anticipated and expected outcomes. We place a timeline (consider the Transtheoretical Model and Stages of Change, which suggest 6 months, 3 months, and 30 days as reasonable timelines for thinking about and planning change). We might enlist friends or allies in the battle too or find a role model to follow like with Social Cognitive Theory.

All of this takes place in a very linear, planned way. Yet, that isn’t really how most people change. Robert West and others have pointed out how on issues of smoking cessation (for example), nearly half of quitters had no plan when they finally quit. Indeed, many just quit almost spontaneously. Linear, rational models of change are so prevalent because they make sense to our brain that wants to make things simple, yet change is rarely like this. I would argue that our change processes — individual, organizational or otherwise — are far more complex than this and therefore require a complex model of understanding change to fully address and support change. Maybe we need to create the mental equivalent of catalytic probes to focus the mind or perhaps we need to engage in diverse experiences to transform the way we process information to support new self-organized mental patterns.

What this looks like is something I’m planning to give much more thought to in 2010 on these pages, because on a personal level the linear ways of doing things didn’t work so well in 2009 and not for the world either. Over the next few months, this issue will be explored further on this site and I welcome readers’ thoughts on how this might look from your point of view.

The first stop on this journey will be information, which serves as the foundation for most of the models of change we adhere to and, as you’ll see, not all is what it seems to be.

Best wishes for a great start to 2010 and may the complexity you find bring with it much joy.


complexitypsychologysocial mediasocial systems

Ushering In a New Phase of Social Networks


The term social was big in 2009. Whether it was social networks, social media or social context — this six-letter word had quite a year. It seems that public and academic discourse is shifting away from the lone, rational actor to the social being making decisions in consort with her or his peers. Whether it is offline, online, or some type of hybrid environment, social interaction has now widely been given its due by decision makers, researchers and the public. We see this in the rapid adoption of tools like Facebook, Twitter, and custom networks on Ning in business, health, and education sectors and by the use of video or photo sharing, citizen journalism, and reader/viewer comments into mainstream media. Even academic health journals from the traditional publishers like the New England Journal of Medicine with its use of podcasts and reader comments to the new Open Medicine, which has explored the use of wikis, are incorporating some social aspects to their online content.

It seems that mainstream institutions have finally picked up what social psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists have always known: we are social beings and we’re more productive, creative and happier when we have opportunities to engage with others.

Lest we pat ourselves on the back for finally ‘getting it’, there is a long way to go before these tools, technologies and systems of working truly produce the dividends that we are looking for in public policy, health care, science and innovation.

What is missing is emotion.

In their new book, Connected, social network researchers Nick Christakis and James Fowler describe the importance of emotion in their exploration of the evolution of social activity:

The development of emotion in humans, the display of emotions, and the ability to read the emotions of others helped coordinate group activity by three means: facilitating interpersonal bonds, synchronizing behavior, and communicating information (p.36)

Our social media and networks have done a reasonable job of the third part (communicating information), but a relatively poor job at the first two. Yes, we can meet people online through social tools or dating sites, but my 15 years of work with online communities has shown me that these technologies are good at facilitating introductions and sustaining relationships over time, but they are lousy at growing relationships. Why? Consider the volume of emotional information that is exchanged when you meet someone and interact with them for even a short period of time. Whether it is a look, a smell, a touch, the tonality of the voice or some combination of them all, the sensory experience that comes from a personal encounter is something that can’t be replicated in our current tools for nurturing social networks.

The rise in the use of video, which provides many more streams of information than text, is one of the hopeful points for social networking. Facebook’s addition of video to its service and the already growing use of Twitter-like tools such as 12 Seconds and Seesmic video suggest that we could be seeing a new style of networking in 2010. Apple’s new iPod Nano also features simple video capture and upload tools. And as video grows in use, so too will the complexity of the messages that are communicated and the ability to express and share emotion within online and mobile networks. Once that happens, we may start to see social networking and social media live up to its full potential.

behaviour changecomplexityemergencepsychology

Complex Change and Energy


Simple, straightforward and predictable things are pretty boring, but they at least can be understood without much effort. And sometimes that simplicity provides comfort that we can’t find in complicated, complex or chaotic events. As we find ourselves working long hours eating badly and sleeping less hours than our body would like its no surprise that we find a lot of organizations trying to make complex change using simple processes (that won’t work). It’s tiring thinking about complexity and simplicity is, well, simple. We don’t need to consider the pushback that could come from making our morning coffee, we need not worry about the unintended consequences of ironing our shirts, or contemplate the emergent patterns that come from picking a green M&M out of the holiday party bowl over the red one. After a long day at the office or an emotional conversation with a loved one, these ‘simple pleasures’ as they are often referred to provide us comfort that can’t be found in complexity.

But change is rarely a pleasure, but always an adventure; When it comes we need to be ready and have the energy to tackle it.

It is perhaps for that reason that people try to deny it or over-simplify problems. Its the very reason why the self-help book section of a store is so big, why New Year’s resolutions are so popular (do you have yours yet?), and why late night infomercials and daytime talkshows still persist in their efforts to sell us the quick and easy change. Change your life in three, five, seven, 10 or 12 easy steps!

It is never that easy. If it was, I could teach my students health behaviour change in an evening seminar at a hotel airport instead of a semester-long graduate course that is, at best, showing the ice floating above the waterline. However, in that proverbial sea of self-help resources one of the few ideas that stands out comes from The Power of Full Engagement. In the book, authors Jim Loehr and and Tony Schwartz point out that a key to change is managing energy as much as it is our cognitions, emotions and behaviour. It is the energy we bring to situations that is the necessary precondition to becoming fully engaged and able to change. It’s why its so hard to pay attention in class or a meeting when you’re tired. Or why you tune out when the message itself is tired; the same old stuff trotted out again and again.

Change in human systems is complex.

Tired individuals and organizations tend to opt for those solutions to complex problems that are simple and, as H.L. Menken said, wrong, — see my last post. Ever seen profound change take root in an exhausted environment? Not me. It’s one of the reasons why effective leaders are those that aim to spark emotion and raise the energy level of those that follow them as much as instill new ideas. Indeed, if you look at many of the best leaders out there, they tend to create environments where new ideas come from introducing new ways to see the complex and make it exciting. A terrific example of this is Benjamin Zander’s talk at TED looking at how the complicated structure and complexity of classical music can enliven the spirit.

So perhaps our first strategy to change is to take a nap, play some Chopin and watch an inspirational movie than try and solve it otherwise we might end up with simple and wrong solutions to complex problems and be no better off for it.

complexityeducation & learningpublic healthresearchsocial media

Storytelling in the Age of Twitter


Storytelling has been on my mind this week. Not the kind of stories that many of us had a children like those in Mother Goose, but rather the ones that we more often tell through chance encounters in the hallway or Tweet about over the Internet. However, like Mother Goose many of the stories we tell include narratives that feature archetypes and draw on a long history of shared knowledge between the storyteller and her or his audience. Unlike in cultures where storytelling is fashioned in a manner that requires sustained attention and considerable skill and practice (think of the many First Nations & Aboriginal communities worldwide or the Irish Seanachaidhean), tools like Twitter, blogs and Facebook enable us to tell stories in new, short form ways to audiences we might not even know about. Sorting through the tweets of 150 different people per day requires a process of sensemaking that is different from those used to ascertain meaning in a long form story. Both are valuable.

Although it is tempting to privilege long-form storytelling, the kind found in essays, feature films, and books, it may be those tweets that better fit with our cognitive tendencies for sensemaking. If you think about your average day, you might interact with a few dozen people face-to-face and perhaps many dozens more through your social networks. How many of those interactions featured a full-fledged story; one that had a clear start, middle, end and coherence that could only be gathered from the story itself, not past relationships with the storyteller? Probably very few. Instead, we much more often speak, write, and even film in narrative fragments; small chunks co-constructed and contextually bound. Think about any buzzword or catch phrase and you can see this in action. From ‘whassup‘ to ‘getting Kanyed‘, these terms have meanings that go far beyond the obvious and can be conveyed with one or two words. Twitter represents this very well with its 140 character limit.

This past week I spent three days with a great group of people getting learning about complexity-based approaches to sensemaking using narrative fragments, software and a variety of facilitation techniques aimed at taking the science of complexity into the practical change realm with the folk at Cognitive Edge. What this accreditation process did was provide a theory-based set of tools and strategies for making sense of vast amounts of information in the form of stories and narrative fragments for purposes of decision-making and research. What this method does is acknowledge the complex spaces in which many organizational decisions are made and, through the Cynefin framework, help groups make sense of the many bits of knowledge that they generate and share that is often unacknowledged. It provides a theoretically-grounded and data-driven method of making sense of large quantities of narrative fragments; the kind we tell in organizations and communities.

From a systems perspective, viewing knowledge exchange and generation through the narrative fragments that we produce is far more likely to lead to insights about how the system operates and developing anticipatory guidance for decision-making than waiting for fully-formed stories to appear and analyzing those. This, like nearly everything in systems thinking, requires a mind-shift from the linear and whole to the non-linear and fragmented. But thanks to Michael Cheveldave and Dave Snowden and their team this non-linearity need not be incoherent. I’d recommend checking out their amazing website for a whole list of novel and open-source methods of applying cognitive and complexity science to problem identification and intelligence.

Thanks Michael and the Toronto knowledge workers group for a great three days! I’m looking at my tweets in a whole new way.

complexityeducation & learninghealth promotionpublic healthsocial systems

Our Unhealthy Hero Complex

I was walking through a hospital on the other day on my way to a presentation and a number of things crossed my mind. One of them is the concept of the hero. Specifically, there was a fundraising campaign that was being promoted in the hospital about recognizing the heros in your life.

In this case, health care workers were described as heros. I think that when we start down that road — from military personnel, firefighters, police officers, and health care workers — we further distance ourselves from the bigger mission these brave, hard-working people actually serve. Soldiers — professional ones anyway — are primarily serving to protect their country with the ultimate aim of peace. Police are similiar; “to serve and protect” is their motto. These are hard jobs and ones that often require a level of risk and committment that goes beyond normal. But defining them as heros can suggest something otherworldly that doesn’t fit — and I would argue sometimes hurts rather than helps.

Take for example the Toronto General Hospital’s ‘Honor Your Hero’ campaign to encourage patients and families to donate to the hospital to recognize (presumably) the heroic efforts of the health care teams in providing them care. The idea of supporting health care and hospitals (which most people in Canada don’t realize are still charities, not government entities despite receiving funding from these bodies) is a good one. The health care teams that work in these centres are made up of well-trained, generally well-paid professionals who are focused and committed to doing the best they can to improve the health of those who walk or are wheeled through the doors. In other words, they are doing their job and when they do it well, individuals lead healthier lives.

Contrast that with teachers, day care staff, or even social workers. They, too are doing jobs that require long hours, dedication, training and the ability to handle a lot of complexity at once. How often are they called heroes? Is their mission any less valuable to our overall health and wellbeing? When this group does its job, our society is healthier.

This is not meant to be a “who is more important” debate. It is also not an ‘either/or’ debate. From a systems perspective, both are vitally important groups to our society. Nor am I suggesting that healthcare workers should be paid less or that either group is any more worthy of the title of ‘hero’. What I am suggesting is that our frame of one as a hero and the other as not does us all a disservice (including those that have to wear that heavy label). It places inordinately heavy emphasis on one part of the system, rather than looking at the bigger picture of health in a social context.

In this month’s Walrus magazine, this point was given a further hue by Roger Martin, Dean of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Business. In this short, but very focused piece, he points to the cost of hero worship (my words, not his) and how we’ve protected health care at all costs while allowing education to spiral down to a point where it will be hard to recover. Looking at the implications surrounding the deficit cutting in the 1990’s by Canadian federal and provincial governments led by Chretien/Martin, Klein, & Harris and most others and how in the effort to protect health care they let education dwindle. A ‘teaser’ of the article is available here. Martin makes the case that our desire to protect health care at the expense of education may backfire and I agree.

If you look at what makes a society healthy or not, health care is only one of a number of contributing factors. Education is one of the biggest. So is a healthy economy, which is linked to productivity, which is spurred by education. Oh yes, and those who provide the services in health care can only do so if they’re well educated.

When we are most vulnerable and our physical or mental health and wellbeing is most compromised we want a trusted, competent health care professional to turn to. But if we want to reduce the severity, onset and extention of these problems and have a population who might best be able to help us in the community and prevent problems from occurring, we need education.

Perhaps it is time to look at this from a systems perspective and take the truly heroic steps of making all of our social determinants of public health professionals, not just those that fit a certain roles, the focus of our support.

complexitydesign thinkingpublic healthscience & technologysocial media

Amazing Stuff: Halloween Edition

Happy Halloween everyone,

Halloween is a rather important day. It’s not only the day that dentists fear, but also the end to my favourite month and the end of the busiest period in the academic calendar when the last of the mid-terms have been graded (round one, anyway) and most grants are in (for now). Tomorrow, retailers will be rushing out the Christmas stuff in North America (at least those that didn’t have it out after Labour Day in September). But as these dates come and go, the amazing stuff continues to find its way into my inbox, Twitter feed, Facebook page, web browser and Google Reader feed. Here’s the neatest and most interesting things I discovered this past week:

1. How to Organize A Children’s Party (or how complexity science can help your work). Interested in complexity science, but don’t really know what it is or how you’d use it in everyday life? This very brief and entertaining video from Dave Snowdon (@snowded) at Cognitive Edge consultancy  explains the difference between ordered, chaotic and complex systems and how they might look from the perspective of organizing a party for 11-year old boys.

2. What Does Meaningful Mean? is an infographic developed by Frog Design to show how to design products and services that actually have meaning to people, not just tell people that they are meaningful. A good reminder to all of us who design things — which is most of us.

3. Brian Solis. OK, so this is not an amazing ‘thing’, but rather a website where Brian Solis, a marketer and PR consultant, hosts his blog and details his ideas and products for public consumption. There are a LOT of new media pundits out there (I won’t name names, but chances are you’ve heard of them) who are being raved about and followed by thousands who have very little to say when you actually listen closely. Brian isn’t one of them. Tour his site and you’ll see some interesting thoughts and insights on how social media can be used effectively by everyone to communicate, and not in some ‘jingo-istic’ manner, but in real terms.

4. Green Porno. I owe a deep debt of gratitude to my colleague Andrea Yip (@andie86) who told me about this entertaining, informative and very odd set of short videos hosted by Isabella Rossellini that combines nuveau performance art, sketch comedy, sex, environmental education and awareness into a funny and uniquely effective medium for communicating about the serious issue of climate change and environmental stewardship.

5. And lastly, Healthmap, is a health and geographic information aggregator that maps infectious disease outbreaks across the globe. Become your own Centre for Disease Control at home and watch where the hotspots are for the flu and other illnesses in your neighbourhood or around the world.

behaviour changecomplexityeducation & learningpsychologypublic health

Standing Still

One of my favourite quotes is from Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa‘s posthumously published novel: The Leopard. The story is about a artistocratic family and their fall from the ranks in society. In the book there is a marvellous quote that reflects the most fundamental challenges of system dynamics:”If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”

I'm Forever Standing Still

I'm Forever Standing Still..Or Am I?

At its core, the message is that we cannot avoid change by standing still, rather only through change can we hope to achieve consistency. And that, is unlikely. We lose our position unless we move along with everyone else, even if in the process of moving it appears as if we are standing still. (Just think of cars on a highway. Two cars driving side-by-side at the same relative speed will look to each other as if they are not moving much at all, when in reality they may be cruising at a very high rate of speed).

We are rarely aware of the speed at which we are traveling, that is the rate of change that is taking place around us and within us. The human body renews itself many times over throughout the lifespan. Our cells are brand new, yet our looks appear at first to be quite similar from day to day. That is, until someone uncovers a picture of us as a child, a youth, a twenty-, thirty-, any-something that is far enough removed from our current state that we realize the profound change that has taken place.

Systems are enormously difficult to change for that very reason. There is not only constant movement, but lots of it and the impact of each component on everything else is different, dynamic and inconsistent. I am currently helping graduate students in public health learn about systems and, while the teaching is fun and the students are interested, the challenge to communicate the language of systems in a manner that is easy to understand is difficult. Indeed, there is little reason why teaching complexity science should be simple given that one of the principles of systems science is that complex problems require complex solutions.

But thankfully one of the other features of complex systems is the presence of paradox. And one of the tools I’ve found works wonderfully is mindfulness-based reflection. Mindfulness is the process of ‘standing still’ by calming the mind and attending the signals around us without trying to influence them. Remarkably, by keeping still and just paying attention to what is around you without ascribing feelings, thoughts, or attitudes towards something we can learn a great deal about what is going on around us. This is a strategy that has been highly effective as a technique in addressing complex health conditions like chronic pain and addictions and training those who work in areas like this.

The question I have is this: How do we get our social institutions and communities to do the equivalent of paying attention to its breath and relaxing its mind to see the systems that they are a part of in order to initiate healthy change?

That is the challenge I am putting to my students and myself and to you too, dear reader.

complexityeducation & learningeHealthemergencesocial systems

The Book is Dead, Long Live the Book! Learning and Social Media

The Book is Dead, Long Live the Book!

Is this a library or a graveyard? P.S. Where's the power outlet?

Is this a library or a graveyard? P.S. Where's the power outlet?

I found myself in a strange situation the other day: I was listening to a podcast of a panel of Web 2.0 marketers talk about their new books and the power of old media in a new media age. No matter how digital a person is, there is still something to hold on to (literally) with a book.

The panel was hosted by Mitch Joel on his podcast Six Pixels of Separation (which is also the title of his new book), and included folk like marketer Chris Brogan and his co-author Julien Smith and others discussing social media and the perils of sticking with the old ways of marketing, yet highlighting the importance (and honour) of being a New York Times Bestseller (i.e., being recognized by a print newspaper as a top seller of paper books). There’s lots involved in this, but most notably I think it actually reflects what Robert Fulford once called “the triumph of narrative” . This is the appeal of storytelling, depth and coherence in communication — things that most new media does quite badly. Twitter, on a tweet-by-tweet basis is largely incoherent. I might have areas I tweet on and may seek people who tweet about other things, but because not everyone stays ‘on message’ and that people tend to have diverse interests (including Twitter follows), that leaves a mass of information that is left up to the user to make sense of.

Facebook, because it is more closely tied to relationships or ‘friends’ we are familiar with, has at least some over-arching thematic consistency to it, but it still isn’t largely a place to tell or learn from stories.

That’s where books come in. Amazon has released the Kindle, while others are trying to digitize text into books. My colleagues at the Strategic Innovation Lab at the Ontario College of Art & Design are looking at the future of the book, trying to understand how to add the searchable features of a regular webpage and the linking features of hypertext within the codex form of book — electronic or otherwise. Seems like a lot of energy is going into a ‘dead’ technology.

Formal education can be a lot like a book. While anyone can pull together the content within a course — textbooks, slides, recordings – few people will learn in the same way at a distance, in chunks, than being part of a coherent narrative provided through a good course (** i.e., one that teaches people to learn, not shovels content at them). That is no reason not to accumulate chunks. Twitter is great — at what it does. So are books.

So much of our discussions of eHealth, eLearning, and education is that we take an either/or approach. Is distance learning better than face-to-face? Books are dead, all the information is on the Web. These arguments are not helpful. I don’t suspect the book — the paper and cloth codex of today — will last, but I do think the book as a long-form manuscript (digital or otherwise) will survive. Our storytelling — at a distance anyway — depends on it.

Another issue is related to complexity. Complex problems require solutions that can reflect this complexity. Those complex responses are much less likely to emerge through a 140 character tweet. They may emerge over 1000’s of tweets, but without any obvious ways to derive coherence from these without mining the data for it. The book, because of its focus on organizing a lot of information into a narrative is one of the best ways to do this. So while we celebrate the rise of new tools and technologies, let’s also give a cheer to the ones we already have.

Lastly, when I came up with the title for this post, I suspected that I wasn’t the only one who’d uttered such a phrase. So in the name of acknowledging the efforts of others, you can see the many different posts using this title here, here, here, here and here (and many other places).



Every time I sit down at my computer I find myself in awe at the power in my hands. I was listening to a podcast on a plane yesterday (just think of that: listening to a radio show, downloaded via the Internet for free to listen whenever I want, on a device that fits in my pocket, and lets me tune in at 34,000 feet over the Caribbean Sea). The podcast was on the Great Library 2.0: Google’s efforts to digitize nearly every book in the world and make it searchable. I find all of this amazing, and unlike some I am happy with how amazing things are in terms of technology.

Yet as Marshall McLuhan so astutely noted, technology first serves as an appendage that serves and then as a master.

Looking at the score between appendage and master I’d say we’re about tied when it comes to how technology affects health. And that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Email Overload

Consider the concept of time poverty. Take the United States, arguably one of the most technologically sophisticated societies, yet also among the most time poor. One poll looking at U.S. vacation time suggests that only 14% of Americans will get a vacation of two weeks or longer this year. That is despite having all of the tools to reduce work time, maximize efficiency, and engage in leisure activities in a way that was once unfathomable. Yet, time poverty is certainly something that I live with despite having the ability to do far more in less time thanks to technology. The problem is the ‘far more’ part of that statement.

When I look at my life and that of others working with eHealth (or academia — or just about every knowledge-based profession), the same storyline come up: too much communication and not enough time to process or participate in it fully. I don’t know of a colleague who doesn’t feel that their email is difficult to manage. I appreciate being able to communicate with colleagues easily (McLuhan’s extension argument), but when I get back from a couple days offline to find hundreds of email, dozens of phone calls, tweets, blog updates, Blackberry messages, and Skype calls waiting for me, I feel very time poor indeed. So ironically, these tools that enable me to do so much so fast contribute vastly to time poverty and stress.

This can’t continue for long – -can it? So far, there is no sign of it stopping with 3G communications and the mobile web. But there are things we can do to change ourselves relative to the technology and avoid becoming the slave to its master. I recently read John Freeman’s Manifesto for Slow Communication and think he might be on to something. He writes:

“In the past two decades, we have witnessed one of the greatest breakdowns of the barrier between our work and per sonal lives since the notion of leisure time emerged in Victorian Britain as a result of the Industrial Age. It has put us under great physical and mental strain, altering our brain chemistry and daily needs. It has isolated us from the people with whom we live, siphoning us away from real-world places where we gather. It has encouraged flotillas of unnecessary jabbering, making it difficult to tell signal from noise. It has made it more difficult to read slowly and enjoy it, hastening the already declining rates of literacy. It has made it harder to listen and mean it, to be idle and not fidget.”

This fits with a recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by two psychologists who looked at multitasking and cognitive performance and,” in every test, students who spent less time simultaneously reading e-mail, surfing the web, talking on the phone and watching TV performed best.

Is the ‘e’ part of eHealth becoming a source of illness rather than wellbeing? As Freeman states:

“This is not a sustainable way to live. This lifestyle of being constantly on causes emotional and physical burnout, work place meltdowns, and unhappiness. How many of our most joyful memories have been created in front of a screen?”


The system in which we utilize these tools best determines their ultimate impact on health and wellbeing. I use all types of media to learn about them and their potential and find it fascinating. But we have no users guide to healthful communicating and frankly, things are happening so quickly I question whether we can even come up with a good one that is timely and relevant. But the question about how eHealth communications and the speed and volume at which this takes place is one that warrants serious attention for us as researchers, teachers, health professionals and citizens. Otherwise, eHealth risks becoming a 21st century version of bloodletting.