The Perfect Watchtower

It occurred to me this morning that checking email often may be a feature, not a bug, of information culture.

Productivity people talk all the time about how you have to stop checking email, you have to stop checking Twitter, in order to start doing real work. I’m not sure checking email is the problem. I think improper filters are.

Let me say it another way. Since the invention of the web, the real-time web has been kind of inevitable. So many updates, so fast, mean updates must get shorter, which in turn means they must be updated faster, and so on. Endless cycle, leading to endless updates.

What we really need to be working on right now is proper filtering methods for this always-on web. Because we don’t know for sure what’s really relevant to us, we subscribe via RSS to stuff we generally care about and hope we get good stuff from it, but often, it isn’t interesting enough to subscribe. We are left with a lot of stuff that’s 50% relevant, not urgent, and which often, we’d rather not see.

So the problem is filtering based on mood, free-time, and urgency. These are all non-trivial problems because there are no hard lines between in any of these categories– ie things are not 30% urgent, we don’t always read 100 words per minute, etc. They are themselves subjective and based on circumstance.

What I need is someone exactly like me that knows exactly how I feel at this moment that can tell me what I want to see right now that is pointed in my direction. This can be a human or a robot. But this is practically impossible so we’re left with highly rudimentary filters that are always throwing stuff at us at improper times, as in “I’m having dinner with my girlfriend, is this call I’m receiving more or less important than that?”

So the result of all of this is a constant checking of all these sources– RSS, social networks, email, etc.– which leave us super distracted and prone to getting absolutely fucking nothing done for really long periods of time.

There is no solution to this other than a perfect personal assistant, whether robot or human, that takes in everything you have to look at and judges whether it’s important enough for you to see. Nevermind that some things set off your creativity while others don’t, and those are impossible to know ahead of time.

Somewhere down the line there is a real solution to this, a perfect watchtower, but it involves total dissolution of privacy. Would you be willing to have it– for perfect peace of mind?






10 responses to “The Perfect Watchtower”

  1. Duff Avatar

    It’s the problem of existential choice, amplified by realtime information flows. Personal assistants cannot solve the problem as David Allen has pointed out because every individual must now deal with their own information streams (gone are the days of a secretary doing one’s typing, for example). Hiring a personal assistant may or may not be part of the solution, but even that is a choice the individual must make and must be accountable to.

    There is no escape from having to make choices based on partial information and to deal with the outcomes of one’s choices. Mark Hurst in Bit Literacy seems to harp on this more than anyone else in the productivity scene, emphasizing taking responsibility for one’s “bit stream” vs. trying to push the responsibility on someone else or a piece of technology. I tend to agree with him.

  2. Chris Brogan... Avatar

    This is exactly what I need. I was thinking about that today. I was waiting for someone to respond to me, and realized that I was checking email, Twitter, and my text messages, as everyone has many ways to reach me now.

    And I also don’t want “new” to be the default. I want “now” to be the default.

  3. Jared Goralnick Avatar

    I love it. We do need a perfect watchtower. However, even if we had one, I still think we’d need to follow the productivity advice of checking our accounts less often. Or at least, checking the unfiltered accounts less often.

    The way I’d envision your watchtower working (or at least how I’m trying to do it with my own product), it’d be a combination of storing the important stuff somewhere separate and pushing alerts to you for the truly urgent…so you actually could check all your accounts (filtered or unfiltered) less often and still be proactive on what you wanted to work on for the rest of the day.

    Awesome stuff!

  4. Judy Helfand Avatar

    It is late, but I have to just say I don’t believe you will find that perfect peace of mind. Sooner or later even the filters need to be rinsed or replaced.

    Duff is correct, gone are the days of the secretary who knew exactly how to manage the bosses “inbox” and “outbox”, she/he filtered everything and usually was compensated quite well.

    I’m reading Chris’ comment. Chris…you want the perfect watchtower, you don’t want “new”, but “now”. Remember last February you said: “But please, can we please lose our addiction to urgency? Because I’m in a serious mood to defend AnyWHEN vigorously.” You even wrote the AnyWHEN manifesto!

    Well, signing off for tonight.

  5. Laurent LaSalle Avatar

    The problem with your “sollution” is that it restrain personnal “evolution”. You personnal interests evolves in time, and I believe that they are influenced by what appears at first as irrevelant stuff. I made friends and learned a lot by following “irrevelant links”, wether on the web or in real life.

    I don’t believe in automated filters. I believe in what I think might be interesting the moment I see it, usually based on who recommended this book or post or music or whatever.

    Checking emails often is good. Althought when I am in a meeting or having diner with someone, I rarely check at my phone; it would looks as if I’m constantly checking my watch… I mean come on!

  6. Maya Paveza Avatar

    Julien – brilliant and thought provoking as always.
    I think it is rather simple actually –

    I think the answer is the phone – if I NEED to reach someone, I call them, if it is urgent/now/immediate.

    If I am receiving a call, I know certain numbers will be answered no matter the situation – the childs school, the Nanny, the Sitter, someone I know is dealing with a situation. Otherwise – GoogleVoice transcribes it, and I can look at the (poorly) transcribed call and usually determine the urgency from that.

    People need to start respecting the immediacy of the telephone, and use the other methods (text, gchat, twitter, email) for conversational situations.

    But yes, it would be so nice to have someone who could sort through the 1800 unopened emails on my Blackberry, I don’t have 4 hours for that.

  7. Paula Newbaker Avatar

    Old school is the best way to organize. If it is urgent, I phone. If it is urgent while working in an office, I physically walk to the office of the co-worker I need to talk to.

    I also tend to know who likes what method of communication, so the people who will not answer voice mail, I text.

    E-mails, tweets, etc . . ..for items that can wait or when there is a whole lot of information, or if it is the preferred method of communication for formal business matters which need to be archived, etc.

    Cutting down on the many different ways to communicate is key so that you do not waste valuable time. Think before you press send in any of the communications tools.

    It’s pretty simple.

  8. Hamish Avatar

    Thanks for clearing the fog of a too-little sleep, weekend with your thought generating post, Julien.

    I feel the perfect watchtower includes a large degree of ruthlessness in selecting the information we consume.

    By leaving the task of parsing our information to an assistant, human or robot, we abdicate responsibility for our information consumption. Essentially, we would choose to become overloaded by information by asking for assistance in choosing the information we consume.

    Last year I read, in Fast Company if memory serves, that the best skill schools (elementary through post-secondary) can impart on their students is the ability to consume a massive amount of information, synthesize out the important bits and decide how to proceed.

    The perfect watchtower might not be something that is developed, it might be something that *evolves.*

  9. Taylor Ellwood Avatar

    Hello Julien,

    Good post. I think the issue really does come down to filtering, but also behavior, specifically how people choose to determine what is a priority vs what isn’t. E-mail, and social networks, becomes a priority because people don’t want to miss information, regardless of what kind it is. We’ve been taught to value information over all else, without really considering the actual value of that information.

    By the way is it possible to subscribe to your blog via email. I like the information here and would like to continue getting it, albeit in a format that works for me.


    Taylor Ellwood

  10. Justin Avatar

    This will not bring perfect piece of mind.

    Complete openness of all things will bring the apocalypse. When society becomes completely open and there are no more secrets we will all go a little nuts. We will all see that nobody is perfect and we all lie, cheat and steel. When this happens the global government will require all homes to be video monitored for your safety to insure we all comply with the law leading to the impending doom of modern civilization or something.

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