By Cory Doctorow
(Originally published in Information Week’s Internet Evolution, October 3, 2007)
For decades, computers have been helping us to remember, but now it’s time for them to help us to ignore.
Take email: Endless engineer-hours are poured into stopping spam, but virtually no attention is paid to our interaction with our non-spam messages. Our mailer may strive to learn from our ratings what is and is not spam, but it expends practically no effort on figuring out which of the non-spam emails are important and which ones can be safely ignored, dropped into archival folders, or deleted unread.
For example, I’m forever getting cc’d on busy threads by well-meaning colleagues who want to loop me in on some discussion in which I have little interest. Maybe the initial group invitation to a dinner (that I’ll be out of town for) was something I needed to see, but now that I’ve declined, I really don’t need to read the 300+ messages that follow debating the best place to eat.
I could write a mail-rule to ignore the thread, of course. But mail-rule editors are clunky, and once your rule-list grows very long, it becomes increasingly unmanageable. Mail-rules are where bookmarks were before the bookmark site del.icio.us showed up—built for people who might want to ensure that messages from the boss show up in red, but not intended to be used as a gigantic storehouse of a million filters, a crude means for telling the computers what we don’t want to see.
Rael Dornfest, the former chairman of the O’Reilly Emerging Tech conference and founder of the startup IWantSandy, once proposed an “ignore thread” feature for mailers: Flag a thread as uninteresting, and your mailer will start to hide messages with that subject-line or thread-ID for a week, unless those messages contain your name. The problem is that threads mutate. Last week’s dinner plans become this week’s discussion of next year’s group holiday. If the thread is still going after a week, the messages flow back into your inbox—and a single click takes you back through all the messages you missed.
We need a million measures like this, adaptive systems that create a gray zone between “delete on sight” and “show this to me right away.”
RSS readers are a great way to keep up with the torrent of new items posted on high-turnover sites like Digg, but they’re even better at keeping up with sites that are sporadic, like your friend’s brilliant journal that she only updates twice a year. But RSS readers don’t distinguish between the rare and miraculous appearance of a new item in an occasional journal and the latest click-fodder from Slashdot. They don’t even sort your RSS feeds according to the sites that you click-through the most.
There was a time when I could read the whole of Usenet—not just because I was a student looking for an excuse to avoid my assignments, but because Usenet was once tractable, readable by a single determined person. Today, I can’t even keep up with a single high-traffic message-board. I can’t read all my emails. I can’t read every item posted to every site I like. I certainly can’t plough through the entire edit-history of every Wikipedia entry I read. I’ve come to grips with this—with acquiring information on a probabilistic basis, instead of the old, deterministic, cover-to-cover approach I learned in the offline world.
It’s as though there’s a cognitive style built into TCP/IP. Just as the network only does best-effort delivery of packets, not worrying so much about the bits that fall on the floor, TCP/IP users also do best-effort sweeps of the Internet, focusing on learning from the good stuff they find, rather than lamenting the stuff they don’t have time to see.
The network won’t ever become more tractable. There will never be fewer things vying for our online attention. The only answer is better ways and new technology to ignore stuff—a field that’s just being born, with plenty of room to grow.
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