My latest Discover column takes a look at a question a lot of us are grappling with -- how do deal with information overload -- and speculates a little on whether, in effect, we can use software interfaces to solve a problem that software interfaces created in the first place:
People already prioritize by thresholds of concentration. That's why you may say to an assistant: Please, don't bother me with calls –– unless it's my spouse. Computers should be better at this kind of filtering, but they're not programmed to anticipate how your attention shifts from one minute to the next. Your e-mail client doesn't know that you're trying to focus on another, more pressing problem. But it would be easy enough to create protocols that define different modes of concentration. Many laptops have location settings that allow you to switch from office mode to home mode and thus change a whole host of settings. Why not offer a comparable option for defining different mental states?
In focus mode, a computer could automatically switch to a full-screen view of the current document and notify all other applications that you're to be bothered only in an emergency. You could define the criteria for breaking the cone of silence by creating a list of important people authorized to interrupt. Or your computer could compile the list in the background, by watching how quickly and reliably you respond to different people over time. That vice president from accounting always gets a rapid response, so the software automatically puts him on the white list. But all those unanswered e-mails from your mother-in-law? She doesn't make the cut when you're focused.
This sort of idea is clearly in the ether right now. The always fascinating Clive Thompson had a long piece a couple of weeks ago in the Times Magazine that tackled comparable issues, and Merlin Mann from the most excellent 43Folders site apparently proposed something quite similar to what I was imagining in the column a while back.