I’ve heard much about the differences between handling information that is “at rest” versus information that is a constant flow, usually by those advocating that flows are different. This dichotomy underlies many arguments, such as the “zero inbox” folks versus those who recommend leaving everything in the inbox for searching as needed. I find this distinction important from an information overload and attention management point of view. Both the flow argument (like a spider sensing and ready to respond to movement anywhere in its vast web) and the at-rest argument (those who believe Google search makes active organizational skills obsolete) can sound convincing. But my thinking is that the classification of “flowing” and “at rest” is really created by the consumer, not a fact based on the information.
Let’s say there’s a document repository that is rapidly being expanded by a slew of people. The documents could be scientific studies about water on Mars, articles about the competition, or whatever. It is my choice if I want to actively monitor the inflow – by checking constantly, subscribing via RSS, or signing up for e-mail updates. I may feel overloaded at times – particularly if this is one of several streams I’m trying to keep track of – but I’ll gain a sense for the pulse of this information flow and be able to respond quickly.
Alternately, I could treat this repository as a haystack growing out of sight until I need a needle from it. When I do need information from it, I’ll use a sophisticated search mechanism, or find someone in my social network that monitors it more closely and ask for a pointer. In this case, it’s being treated as information at rest.
If this is a competitive space, it’s not clear whether the flow person will beat out the at rest person. It depends on the mix of sources someone has to monitor, as that impacts their ability to effectively treat it as a flow. Technical improvements in flow technology (like attention streams) and at-rest technology (like advanced forms of search) keep tilting this balance, as does increased skill in monitoring flow or mining resting information.
Here’s where attention management fits in. The answer for each information consumer probably lies in prioritizing which sources are worthy of monitoring as flow and which are fine to leave at rest until needed. If you can only pay attention to a dozen flows, is this important enough to be one of them? Technology can then be enlisted to monitor the flow or mine the data at rest as desired, regardless of how the information producer intended. And, hopefully, technology continues to make either path easier.
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