The Back-Logged Life
No, no, sorry. I mean, his Blackberry is set to ping him every time an e-mail arrives, and the man gets five hundred messages a day. It was like he had a small, coin-operated hotel mattress strapped to his belt. He's got the palm-in, wrist-up Blackberry unholster motion down.
But does anybody really need to be that connected? Are those messages so important that they can't wait for him to finish being bored by me and get back to his desk? No, of course not. That's not the point. It's not the importance of the messages that demands they be checked immediately, it's the volume.
With the amount of crap being vomited up by his Ethernet connection -- all day, every day -- it's tough to walk away from the spigot for fear that he'll return to waist-deep water. Ethan reads his mail in real-time to avoid being greeted by a hundred-message pile-up when he gets back from lunch. Bringing the computer with you is the only way to keep up.
My entire life has devolved into an endless, grinding slog through my back-log. Everything I do is about catching up, doing the stuff I didn't get done the day before, plowing through some other goddamned thing that needs my attention. Ending the day without actually adding to the total aggregate is a victory. There are times when it piles up faster than I can shovel it away.
And the computers are at fault, of course. Always the computers.
The tools I use to manage information have evolved to the point where I can abdicate the tedious process of gathering it all together to them, and they now do a very diligent job of making sure that it's all brought to my attention. Endlessly. Maddeningly.
Years ago, someone phoned you and you weren't home, you missed the call and they had to try back -- now, the messages queue up in voice-mail. TV shows used to slip unwatched by unless you were there to suck them up them in real-time -- today, my TiVo has hours of mindless crap that it's faithfully holding for me. The Web originally required me to actually go out and do something as quaint as visit sites to read them -- these days, my feed reader pulls down megabytes of data -- a large portion of it, of course, cat pictures -- and piles it up, forever. Each of these swollen reservoirs of data silently mocks me with my inadequacy.
The statistics are terrifying. All this is currently pending:
- Voice-mail messages at work: 3
- Voice-mail messages at home: 2
- Voice-mail messages on my cell: 1
- SMS messages on my cell: 4
- Hours of television on the TiVo: 13
- E-mail messages at home: 15
- E-mail messages at work: 28
- Items in my feed reader: 313
- Books on my nightstand: 8
This doesn't even count various to-do lists scattered on my desk, next to my bed, in the car and -- you think I'm kidding here -- in the bathroom. And compared to some people I know, I run a pretty tight ship get-to-it-wise.
I mean, holy crap.
It's all hard stuff, too, the sedimentary layers at the bottom of my various in-boxes. One e-mail message can imply a month of work. One feed item can be hours of reading. A single voice-mail can be days of back-and-forth. It's all stuff that I will realistically be able to do right after I get all the rest they promise when I die.
The proper solution, of course, is to further improve the tools. There are plenty of rants out there about how to fix feed readers and e-mail clients and DVRs, or to allow community filtering and sort-by-affinity and Bayesian ranking. And that's all great, and I'll heartily welcome the day when Outlook is smart enough to simply trash the messages that I'm going to trash anyway, before I even see them. (Rule: "From: Boss" to "Deleted Items".)
But I'm not waiting until then. As of now, my fancy-pants, community-generated, emergent-behavior data-sorting heuristic is: a calendar. If I haven't gotten to something in a week, it dies. Stick that in your attention economy and smoke it. I'm re-booting. Feed list: empty. In-box: empty. TiVo: OK, OK, I still need to watch "24." But other than that: empty.
So screw you, info-glut! I'm not going to be the responsible info-citizen I'm expected to info-be anymore. If I get to it, I get to it. If I don't, well, then it couldn't have been very important in the first place. I suspect that burning children and drowning buildings will still get the attention they need. But the year-old e-mails that are stinking up the bottom of my in-box? The month-old "Daily Shows"? The three dozen Waxy Links that I've flagged and sorted and pinned to a corkboard for further study some day? Gone. And good riddance.
You're on notice, Entirety of Human Knowledge. You get a week. If you can't get my attention in that time -- and it's plenty of time -- then you're tossed, junked, thrown away and forgotten.
Call me back if it's important.