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Monday, April 11, 2011

The Email of Damocles

Dionysius, who had seized power in the city of Syracuse, overheard the young man Damocles envying his good fortune. "Very well," said the ruler. "If you think my position is so enviable, you may change places with me for a day."

          As Damocles sat feasting in the palace, he happened to glance upward and was horrified to see a sharp sword hanging above him by a single thread. "Are you surprised?" said Dionysius. "I came to power by violence, and I have many enemies. Every day that I rule this city, my life is in as much danger as yours is at this moment." –Cicero, 60bc

Consider an individual at a computer keyboard. Typing a document at length will result in the sustained use of the musculature from one’s hand to one’s back, and a feeling of fatigue and pain will be caused by the overuse or stress caused by using the musculature. The cure of course is to taking intermittent breaks from typing. In this case, demand did not cause one’s muscles to give out, but rather the demand to perform in a certain way. Thus the ‘repetitive stresses’ that cause muscular fatigue and pain are minimized by regulating how we perform a task, and not by controlling what that task is.

Now consider an individual who is rapidly switching between two or more incompatible tasks. This multi-tasking again correlates with muscular tension, fatigue, and pain[i]. The obvious solution is to refrain from excessive task switching and to perform one task at a time, undistracted by competing choices. An implicit assumption underscoring this opinion is that the stress induced by multi-tasking represents a reaction akin to fear that engages an adrenaline fueled reaction for fight or flight. The second assumption is that task switching itself causes stress. That is, because stress occurs while you are task switching, therefore it occurs because of task switching.

Unfortunately the experimental data belie both of these conclusions. For demands that result in task switching, increased muscular tension is the correlating response, and if sustained results in muscular exhaustion and pain. Representing the debilitating effects of sustained (even slight) tension, this ‘Cinderella effect’ [ii] [iii] [iv] is precisely the same effect that afflicts our computer typist, and moves the cause of stress to specific and easy to observe neuro-muscular events. Secondly, neuro-muscular activation does not follow task switching, but the anticipation of task switching. Again the supporting data are unequivocal. For the literature of ‘choice-choice’ behavior from the animal experiments performed by Neal Miller[v] in the 1950’s to the experiments on choice behavior on humans conducted in the 90’s by Antonio Damasio[vi], tension and anxiety occur as a precursor to choice, and act to influence choice itself.

The implications of this are striking. Primarily, the reduction of multi-tasking would become a half solution for on the job stress. Instead of reducing multi-tasking, one must eliminate the anticipation of multi-tasking even if multitasking never occurs. This may be illustrated by adapting an age old story. Say for example your Uncle Damocles arrives for evening dinner. A talkative and irritating sort, you decide to hang a sword above his head held in place by a hair. As the dinner progresses, Damocles will have to consider from moment to moment the decision to stay at the dinner table and risk a bout of sword swallowing, or leave the table and miss swallowing dessert. Now put Damocles in a business office, and give him access to an always available internet, and the anticipated and continuous dilemmas of checking email versus working will likely occur, and result in tension and stress. Whether he switches often or infrequently between tasks is immaterial, as it is only his anticipation of making moment to moment choice that matters. Add to this the anticipated instant messages from the boss, and of co-workers dropping by your office to chat about irrelevant topics, and you can see how you become not a model of efficiency, but a ‘harried housewife’ who is on edge because she doesn’t know where the next distraction is going to come from. Ultimately, we cannot escape the pressures of life, where we have to anticipate performing multiple tasks despite our best intentions, but we can control anticipating the inadvertent and unnecessary interruptions that in this ever connected world stress us out. Put in other words, in the world of the internet, by turning your connections off, you can adjust your seat and remove the sword dangling above your head.

[i] Mark, G., Gonzalez, V., and Harris, J. No Task Left Behind? Examining the Nature of Fragmented Work. Proceedings of CHI’05, (2005), 113-120
[ii] Wursted, M., Eken, T., & Westgaard, R. (1996) Activity of single motor units in attention demanding tasks: firing pattern in the human trapezius muscle. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 72, 323-329
[iii] Wursted, M., Bjorklund, R., & Westgaard, R. (1991) Shoulder muscle tension induced by two VDU-based tasks of different complexity. Ergonomics, 23, 1033-1046
[iv] Hagg, G. (1991) Static Work loads and occupational myalgia- a new explanation model. In P. A. Anderson, D. J. Hobart, and J. V. Danhoff (Eds.). Electromyographical Kinesiology (pp. 141-144). Elsevier Science Publishers, P. V.
[v] Miller, N. (1992) Studies of fear as an acquirable drive: I. Fear as motivation and fear-reduction as reinforcement in the learning of new responses. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 121(1):6-11.
[vi]Damasio, A. (1995) Descartes Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. Avon: New York

Friday, April 08, 2011

Creativity Pt 2

The Non Issue of Creativity

Creativity is an adverb, not a noun. It is an aspect of a thing rather than a thing itself. In this regard, creativity is a relative and not absolute concept, and is no more real than virtue, goodness, or beauty. Nonetheless, creativity is a particularly attractive concept for pop and humanistic psychologists because like free will, consciousness, death and George Bush’s brain, it is full of import but near empty in detail, and hence does not demand detail. Because creativity can’t be defined, psychologists feel free to define it in any which way they can. This of course leads to innumerable articles and fat books, but it also leads to an immediate conundrum. How can you teach someone to be creative and the motive to be creative when the very definition of creativity denies that there are clear rules involved? Better to deny creativity itself than to deny that remarkable behavior and the motivation that underlies it follows rules that can in large measure be discerned. This is a harsh but nonetheless necessary statement, since all arguments on creativity ultimately miss the point that that the effort to define an indefinable term is ultimately a Zen exercise, not a scientific one.

Now, how mankind invented the wheel or for that matter, eighteen-wheelers implicates thinking, or the processes and events that constitute and instigate those processes. However, the thinking process becomes a creative process depending upon the perceptual prism that you use. The first perceptual lens you employ is whether the product of a thinking process has any importance. This of course is a particularly relative thing, since the music of Britney Spears may be regarded as an artistic testament to the ages for a thirteen year old girl, but may be regarded as a mere noise to a Hottentot, or not even that. Compounding this fact is that creativity is dependent upon our estimate of the rules and motivation (or lack thereof) one relies upon in the act of creation.

Consider the relative importance of, well, relativity. Einstein, who himself noted that estimates of his own genius were relative to how ignorant an observer was of the references he used, has been long recognized as the supreme exemplar of the creative mind. If relativity was a paint by numbers creation, a mere set of theoretical inferences easily and logically derivable from other people’s work, then Einstein would be regarded as no more visionary than an accountant who creatively balances the books. If Einstein hid his references well enough, or surprised his peers with the novelty of his logic, then he would be a creative artist indeed. Couple that fact with the knowledge that the patent office that he worked for did not commission him to think up such great thoughts, leaving him to his own scant resources, then Einstein approaches the acme of all creative genius, the ‘starving artist’.

The Einstein that comes down to us created hypotheses of surpassing value, and all with little regard to the inbred conventions and conventional wisdom of the time, and with no more motivation than the inner need to know. Thus Einstein vaulted from meek patent clerk to exalted genius because he not only created something new and important, but because he did it outside of the standard ‘rules’ of the game, and he did it for free.

Creative accountant
No Rules
Tattoo Artist
No Rules or Motivator
Starving Artist

Figure 1. The Matrix of Creativity

But let’s say that Einstein’s mentor Ernest Mach beat Einstein to the punch with his own version of relativity. Despite his independent confirmation of the fact, Einstein would soon be relegated to a mere cipher in the history of accomplishment, much like Newton’s own regard of Leibnitz’s independent invention of the calculus, or like the second guy who soloed in an airplane across the Atlantic. If Einstein played by the rules to get to his hypothesis, he would be a mere accountant. If he still broke the rules, then he would be an artist all right, but of no more remark than a fellow who designs tattoos. And finally, if he was self-motivated, then without his patent office job to fall back on, he would be regarded as no more than a hobo, although a hobo with an ability to do the math.

Ironically, understanding and knowledge is the great killer of creativity, for when we will finally know all the rules, motivators, and facts, then all remarkable titles like virtue and creativity are dispelled by the commonplace, yet we will continue to take our pleasures like contented accountants in the twilight of the race.


Problems, Problems, Problems!!

"Italy for thirty years under the Borgias had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed, but produced Michelangelo, DaVinci, and the Renaissance. And Switzerland had brotherly love and five hundred years of democracy and peace. And what did they produce? The cuckoo clock."
Orson Welles from the 1949 motion picture "The Third Man"

Life was brutal, short, and demanding in every way; and all you could look forward to were problems. Ironically, problems were the good part. And life didn’t start out easy either. Born with a flaw, and you were put on a ledge to die of exposure. Born female or on the wrong side of the tracks, and you became child bearing chattel, or worse, just chattel. For the lucky few, who amounted to just 40,000 or so, life was the ultimate do it yourself course. There were no enclyopedias, few books, and nature was explained through tall tales, or failing in that, merely improvised. Computers, phones, TV’s, or even printing presses were not even dreams. Libraries had at most just a few dozen manuscripts, and when you said scroll down, it was that scroll, down there. Your peers were ornery, greedy, and selfish, and coveted their neighbors goods, wives, and just about anything that wasn’t tied down.

So what could possibly be the saving grace of this mean and miserable world? It was that people wanted things from you, and survival demanded even more. With no police, you learned how to defend yourself. With no lawyers, you had to learn to speak for yourself. With no entertainment, you had to create your own. With no philosophy, you had to think for yourself. With no science, you had to make up your own hypotheses. With no professional sports, your strength and dexterity would be tested. You had to use your wits, survive by them, or die if they failed you.

Life was nothing but problems, but problems by their very nature imply solutions. If you can think or imagine a way out, you will keep alert, aroused, and ready to create ever new and different solutions. In difficult times, creativity after all finds a way. And what serves for the memory of posterity? It is hardly the problems. Rather, we salute the solutions, which are fixed in cultural memory as monuments of art, music, literature, philosophy, or stone. But what is to be said of the origins of the problems themselves? Could it be inspiration, character, a heavenly muse, or maybe just the water?

Perhaps that is the half-legacy of Ancient Greece. The products of inspiration come to us as literary and artistic fossils, but the environment that nurtured them is burned away, and exists only in pottery shards and tumbled marble columns. And like fossils, we know them mainly from museum trips and coffee table books. The Greek world is dead, skeletal, fit for the musing of scholars, but meaning nothing to a workaday world that could hardly be distracted.

Greek science is outdated, its dramas unplayed, its art pinned to walls and shelves like dead butterflies, and its philosophy mainly the stuff of college courses. But why in heavens do we love and admire it, and why would many of us give our eye teeth to sit around a rock to hear Socrates argue, Plato expound, Demosthenes orate, or witness a drama by Euripedes? It certainly isn’t the setting, for there are lots of places to be found without phones or working toilets without having to jump into a time machine.

It is because you want to be mixed with the human bustle, a time of a flux of ideas, of demand, of competition. And the Greeks were nothing if not competitive. In fact they put an element of competition into everything they did. Like a gambler who would take bets on whether the sun would rise again in the morning, the Greeks made learning, entertainment, and art a competitive affair, and reveled in the intellectual competition involving ideas, art, politics, and science.

Now the Greek ‘experience’ was a brief moment in history, isolated in a small rocky peninsula the size of the state of Maine, and driven by a privileged social class who would scarcely populate a medium sized American city. But the marvel is not what they created, but the broad possibilities of creation even when creation is compelled for and by a few. Whether the Greek drive to create was due to an accident of geography, social tradition, economic or military competition, it speaks volumes for the capabilities of the human mind when the mind is set upon to solve problems.

The great artistic accomplishments of Greek civilization, as well as the Renaissance, and Elizabethan civilizations that followed were created by relatively small communities made isolate by social stratification, geography, or national persona. That these communities demanded much, and ever sharpened their expectations, underlined a social ethos that valued the creation as well as resolution of problems. But these cultures are but exceptional players in the cultural tapestry of history. Society as a whole generally abhors any problems outside of the ones that impede survival. Generally, it’s best to keep problems to a minimum, an unspoken wisdom that is accepted to this day.

But what do we mean by a ‘trouble free’ society? To find its exemplar, let’s move forward hundreds of years into the future. In these more modern times, one superpower spread across the continent. Governed by a cantankerous and corruptible senate, ruled by sound laws, and unified by a common language and good roads that allowed one to travel from sea to sea without a stoplight. It had its own civil war before it was united under an august hand to enter a golden age of prosperity, and was pestered and inspired by a Christianity that was very fundamental. Along the way, it secured its freedom after fighting a series of wars with the Germans, and kept armies in central Europe to keep the peace. As time went on it needed more immigrants to keep industry and agriculture humming, and secure in the knowledge of their own greatness, its people settled back to enjoy themselves.

Its entertainment was simple, violent, and on the whole moronic. The theatres were emptied by the lure of nonstop sporting events, and vainly tried to lure the masses back by plots that included a lurid mix of sex and violence. Gambling was everywhere, pornography flourished, and it was a fashion among ‘holy’ men to predict the end of the world. No one wanted anything from you except a day’s labor. Value was denoted in what you could produce, everything else was mere diversion. Economic value was thus the measure of man. Sports and military heroes were idols of the general public, and intellectuals stayed in their circles, and barely nudged common opinion. It was a society that largely forgot its past because it had none. Its cultural accomplishments were as empty and ephemeral as yesterday’s fall TV schedule, but without memory, even transitory pleasures could seem important and eternal. So the illusion went on for hundreds of years, and when this society exhausted itself on its own banality, it was replaced by cultures that were similarly driven and dissatisfied by a quest for ‘no problems’.

This example of a problem free society was of course Rome in its ‘golden’ age. From 27 BC to 180 AD, the Roman Empire spanned a continent, and was a thousand times richer, more populous, and secure than Periclean Athens. But for all its potential, the two hundred-year golden age of Rome was a cultural desert, and all that comes down to us from an empire that lasted in told some 700 years is a tiny scattering of writers, a talent for engineering, and a penchant for big government. This of course may be an elitist condemnation. After all, perhaps bread and circuses are the way to go. Certainly the race, if the measure of its mind was gauged by the preponderance of current tastes, would gladly sacrifice a Mozart symphony for an album by Britney Spears, and a Michelangelo sculpture for the sculpted frame of a new SUV.

We are as cavalier and negligent with the totems of our culture as the Middle Age Italians who dug up and burned ancient statuary for their lime. And like rain forests, we would nonchalantly burn them to ash if they afforded us a moment’s warmth. The reason of course is that we have never learned to see anything in them, or note the problems they pose to us. But why in heaven would we do so if we already know the answers, or more importantly, if no one demands answers from us?

A popular culture that bestows the title of ‘artist’ or ‘philosopher’ to every garage trained drummer, romance novelist, abstract painter, political pundit, or pop psychologist ultimately displays not its interest, but its indifference. When the problems of existence and of beauty are reduced to platitudes, simple maxims and redundant formulae, then all we have left is bread and circuses. Whether the products of popular culture are right or wrong, beautiful or ugly is really not the point. It is rather that as they fail to challenge us, they rapidly fade to dullness. And creativity, by definition, is a very stimulating thing. But again, creativity is not quite the word for it, because creativity does not exist.

The World as DVR

Consider a DVR. We know its purpose, generally, but knowing all that it can do and how it works is a different matter. Let’s say that we get one of these devices as a gift. Would we be the better for it if it came with instructions, or if it did not? Of course, we would all generally answer in the affirmative. Better to know how a machine works rather than trouble ourselves with figuring it out on our own. So instructions in hand, we quickly learn how to schedule and record programs, record from our video camera, skip commercials, and use the remote control. Without the instructions, it’s an entirely different matter. We are forced to rapidly note the correlations between pressing this button and that, and the mix and match of different features and their infinite permutations. In the first case, using a DVR is an easy and explainable thing, and all of its different functions can be mapped to a list of simple instructions. In the second case, the DVR is a difficult and perhaps incomprehensible thing, and how we come about learning its uses and how to use it derives less from method than inspiration. In the first case, understanding follows from the rote memorization of rules, and in the second case, understanding can only be the product of a creative mind.

If all the products of culture from assembling bicycles to composing symphonies could be derived from lists of rules, then we would be no more justified in labeling them creative than we would the calculated sum produced by an adding machine. Whether the results of the calculation were new, beautiful, useful, or even revealed the nature of the cosmos and existence itself, they wouldn’t be creative because the process behind that calculation would be known. So creativity is at root an unintelligible and vicarious process. Ordinarily, unintelligible processes are something we shun, as common sense tells us we should. But evolution has conspired to imbue in us an abhorrence of listless and all encompassing knowledge. Better to be uncertain about things, and about the future, since uncertainty multiplies the possibilities, and it’s the possibilities that enthrall.

Creativity is the indeterminate and stimulating aspect of problem solving. Creativity is indeterminate because we can’t distill it to a distinct set of rules, but must shift between various cognitive strategies for success. Creativity is also stimulating when that shifting between cognitive perspectives is demanded. Thus we can value and long for the demanding attention from our peers, and have nostalgia for the character of long dead civilizations, even if their cultural product has not lasted the test of time. Creativity is not a noun, but an adverb, not a thing, but a shading of a thing. It does not exist as a faculty of mind, but is rather an aspect of our motivation to think and behave.

We focus on creativity, but creativity is an illusion. Our real attention must be on motivation. Creative figures from Isaac Newton to Stephen King attributed their accomplishment not to rules, but to obsession. To incessantly think about physics, music, or writing requires no inner muse or child, no humanistic platitudes, no abstract economics, no lure of posterity. There’s no obscure anthropological, sociological, or psychological force, no divine spark, and no mystery. Creativity is just the product of a culture’s celebration of creation in all its forms, from knitting a quilt to composing a symphony. It is why Shakespeare wrote, and Mozart composed, and Galileo looked to the skies. When everyone wants something from you, from a short story to a home run, you’ve just got problems, and problems are the real meaning of life.

Oh yes, and the cosmos? Consider it God’s gift, instructions not included, and much assembly required.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Gladiator Therapy

Your boss, co-worker, telemarketer vs. poor persecuted you.

If the world has got you down, you can just escape your problems by mentally escaping to fun and fictional worlds where justice was as swift and sure as a good whack to the head. That is, why talk things through when you can run things through, or at least do it mentally? If you can't cut off the source of your problems, at least you can cut the heads off of the people who caused them for you. That's the healing power of a healthy imagination. 

What's the value of forgiveness, love, and understanding when all it gets you is a perpetual reduction to psychological burger meat? I for one would rather be doing the slicing and dicing rather than suffering a death of a thousand unkind cuts Obviously, running amuck in the city center with a thousand round a minute nail gun like you see in video game shooters is not quite practicable. That leaves us with our imagination to get things done. Nevertheless, no matter how vivid your daydreams, it still needs some Hollywood special effects, or better, Hollywood hyperbole! When you mix grand characters with grander emoting, there's no telling what you can do in the fever pitch of your delusions. That's positive thinking with a real bite to it! It's also a whole lot more satisfying than merely repeating to your self 'I know I can, I know I can' like the little choo-choo that could. Thus, rather than engaging in wussified 'love your inner child', 'think happy thoughts'' therapy forced upon you by your effete psychotherapist, why not go for the gusto and engage in the type of self help ancient Roman Gladiators used to get by from day to day? When you merge positive thinking with the imagery of an axe to the head, that's not just psychology, that's entertainment!

For example, who can forget that epic scene in the movie 'Gone with the Wind' when our heroine Scarlett O'Hara realized that when the evil Yankees burned her plantation down, she was inadvertently placed on an all turnips, all the time diet. Declaiming that she  would get through all this if she had to beg, borrow, or steal, one heard her cry with her figure silhouetted against a crimson sky to the swelling of massed violins. "As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again!!"  Who among us hasn't taken this as an emotional rallying cry to ask our boss for a raise, take a course in accounting, or at least raid the refrigerator? 

I'll never be hungry, fat, bored, overtaxed, etc. again!

Or when the Romans asked where Spartacus was because they were 'cross' with him, or when Henry Bailey lost his money for his Building and Loan, wasn't it just as inspiring to know that your friends will come through? Cinematic metaphors are just the ticket to get you up for a difficult day, or suggest that when the rubber hits the road, your friends or your guardian angel will hold you up.

When the chips are down, it's good to have friends!

Gladiator Therapy Exercise

As an exercise in Gladiator Therapy in action, pick a motion picture where you have a hero persecuted by some evil folks, and who triumphs or at least dies heroically in the end. We'll use naturally the movie Gladiator as a case in point, although films like Rambo, the Terminator, and the Wizard of Oz may also be used. The film opens up with a real swell battle scene where you and people you like (e.g. your bowling league, U.S. Marines, Florida State football team) are up against some awful barbarian hordes (e.g. your irritating in-laws, North Koreans, Internal Revenue Service, University of Miami football team.) 

Your bowling league, US Marines etc. (above)  vs. your irritating in-laws, French people, etc. (below).

You and your pals of course kill them all in a bloody battle, but you are betrayed by a usurper to the throne, who takes your easy chair, your corner office, or your bank account. As he thinks he's got you down for the count, you retort thusly: " I am the follower of: George Bush, FSU sports, almighty God, almighty dollar, etc. You have killed my family, taxed me, bored me, etc. and in this life or the next I WILL HAVE MY VENGEANCE!"Then you kill him, assassinate his character or something like that. Of course you probably won't do these things, but for now it sure feels good that you can cinematically portray the comeuppance of your enemies! Just take one movie a day and a little bit of  positive play acting, and soon you'll be emoting with satisfaction as you portray your enemies being chopped to bits, obliterated by cannon fire, or having bad hair days. Thus your bad emotions will be purged, and you will be able to whistle while you work, and happily skip and saunter through your day, oblivious to any care in the world!

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

A Choice of Realities

In the movie ‘The Matrix’, reality or suffering through reality came to a simple choice between a blue pill and a red pill. One reality was pleasant and unreal, and the other unpleasant and real.


Whether you experienced one or the other depended upon your connections, literally. Take the blue pill and you get unplugged, and down you go through an out of this world laundry chute into a dark subterranean world where pea soup is the main course, but at least the whole underworld can get down and boogie in a huge dance party celebrating how good things are when they’re really, really, bad.

Facing reality has usually been framed as a good thing, even though it is bad. This is a standard conceit for movie plots, religions, and economic policies. But what if facing and accepting reality is a pretty good thing, and makes you feel happy, calm, and productive? What if it is the illusion that is bad, except we don’t know it yet?

Accepting reality means forswearing your choices, at least for the present. It is the world of the straight and narrow, where everything is available, in due course. It represents an impingement of freedom, or choice, but that’s reality for you, as you can’t always get what you want or when you need it. But a new and different reality is emerging, where you can always get what you want, and when you want it. This applies to information, and to many, information is enough to provide a reality of its own. Information is simultaneous, choice is free, and the perceived world becomes a gigantic mash up of words, sights, and sounds, a pea soup of information that putsyou in dark non real place that might as well be the center of the earth. But at least you get to dance.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Information Overload

“Why are you fearful of the whole ocean swallowing you, when in fact a cup of water is all it takes for you to drown.” Epictetus, 110 A. D.

We often moan that there’s not enough time in the day because there’s too much to do, but now the common complaint is that it’s because you’re doing too much. Information overload is the bugbear here, but it has been the bugbear since our ancestors were bugged by bears. Humankind has always been faced with more information than it can handle, but we learned to handle it by filtering. Like a chess master pondering the numberless moves that can sequentially secure checkmate, humans parse between information that is necessary, optional, or redundant. But they are also sensitive to novel information as well, and this ingredient can change the behavioral calculus in ways that make it impossible for us to out good information from bad.

Consider if you would, your uncle Charlie. It’s 1965, and living as he is in a faraway town, he’s always available to you, and is merely a phone call away. Unfortunately, long distance phone calls back then set you back twenty five cents a minute, so when you were calling Uncle

Social Networking Device, circa 1965

Charlie, it was sure to be about something important. Although infinite information about Uncle Charlie was available, the transaction cost of obtaining that information insured that the information you got from you uncle had a high predicted value, usefulness, or utility.

Now it’s 2010, and Uncle Charley is still around, along with his infinite experiences that he was always willing to share. The pay phone is long gone now, and Uncle Charley is now plugged into the entire electro-magnetic spectrum. And you can access his every move and every thought through myriad devices and services that provide you Uncle Charley, all the time. So whether it is Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, instant message, email, or Skype accessed through your iphone, ipad, laptop, or even future permitting, cranial implant, Uncle Charley is no more than an eye blink away.

More important, Uncle Charley is now ‘free’, and you can access him with minimal cost or fuss. So even though the value of accessing Uncle Charley from moment to moment is near zero, we still end up accessing Uncle Charley, a lot. In fact, we are ‘overloaded’ with Uncle Charley as well as infinite minutiae of minimal utility but high urgency. In fact, as in Epictetus’ maxim, we find oceans of information in a few ounces of water but historically have not been drowned in information because access to information comes at a cost. Now as the cost approaches zero, attend we must, and end up drowning in cup.

When the cost of information trends to zero, so does its marginal or incremental utility. However, the affective value of novel information stays low but constant, and when the threshold is passed we end up valuing information not because it is valuable, but because it is new. Thus when information is dear, we value it because of its utility, but when it is cheap we value it because it is novel. But unlike rational goods, novel goods cannot be easily parsed or handled according to rules, hence we become ‘overloaded’ with them, and that is a problem even a computer can’t help us with.