Shorter

You may not want to spend time reading this blog post.  It’s rather long and drawn out and is likely to be dull.  And it gets kind of complicated. Besides, the graphics are sparse and uninteresting. Plus there’s no video.

Grant Wood American GothicInstead, you might appreciate some other informational exper- ience better, one that happens also to be thoroughly cool and engaging. Like Facebook walls or those omnitemporal slice-of-life Twitter tweets.

This post definitely is not slice-of-life. Hardly. It is conceptual, meaning that it is mostly tedious and definitely time-consuming.  It entails plodding through the text to see if any of the ideas make any sense. And even if they do, you have to figure out whether they are at all relevant. Worse, the topic could be one of those god-awfully amorphous ones that have no clear, calculable bottom lines—like conundrums or Zen Buddhist koans.

Well, since you’re reading this paragraph, you must have free time on your hands.  So, I’ll tell you that the title of this post is from a National Public Radio essay by commentator Mark Allen.  Allen recounts how his boss insists that Allen send him only brief, concise email messages.  The boss apparently realizes that life is too short to get bogged down in details.  Or, heaven forbid, in the subtleties of precision, meaning, and context. Too much information. Shorter. Allen says that for people like his boss who subscribe to the Utopian vision of Life 2.0, “speed and brevity are obviously more important than facts, words, or information.”

Bridge18th_120Nowadays it is a social faux pas to communicate in long sen- tences with colleagues, friends, and family.  It’s self-indulgent, counter-productive, and so 20th century!  (Actually, I like to think of it as so 18th century since that’s when expository writing actually sprang up.)

Every so often, though, brevity and simple-minded factoids end up being extremely dangerous. I am thinking of the 2003 Columbia space shuttle accident that killed seven astronauts and crippled the NASA shuttle program.  The (I apologize) details about the role that sound-bite-like thinking played in this tragedy can be seen in the thoughtful work of data-presentation expert Edward Tufte.

Bottom line—the format in which information is presented has a gigantic effect on the information itself.  Marshall McLuhan’s famous quote ‘The medium is the message’ said essentially this.  Bottom lines filter out lots of information and it is never clear what crucial data have gotten omitted.  (Listen to the NPR audio to hear how the print version strips out information that is otherwise embedded in the single spoken word “shorter.”) In the case of textual information, simplified formats lead to simplified information.  Complicated ones enable the presentation of more complex and richer information.

Thankfully, the engineering details of space shuttle systems can be fairly well specified, as Tufte points out.  The task just requires ample formats for text, formulas, performance data, and diagrams that permit the exploration of the information, including its obvious and latent interrelationships.  And, of course, a commitment to studying and analyzing the information systematically.

TuftePPcoverPutting too many time and space restrictions on information distorts the information. But, as Allen notes, managers on a mission want bottom line answers.  They inhabit the world of perpetual motion and decisive action—not contemplation and analysis.  When a manager is seeking a tree, the forest can only be an aggravation.

Tufte has an almost scriptural response to the temptation to oversimplify important phenomena:  “It’s more complicated than that.” Which I will supplement with this verse: “Woe to the manager who under-contemplates a really important decision.”

All too often Tufte’s adage applies to informational practices in businesses and in public institutions, including libraries.  Short, over-simplified answers typically misrepresent the real situation. And they tend to justify the conduct of business as usual.  Responsible and effective public management (that is, stewardship of the public’s resources), however, requires a commitment to analyzing and digesting operational, performance, and environmental data, recognizing where informational gaps exist, identifying possible connections, looking for underlying logic, structure, and trends, and determining what relevant conclusions or generalizations can justifiably be drawn from these details.

But all of this is a big hassle when there is more pressing work to be done.  Work like hunkering down to absorb library budget cuts, re-allocate staff, pare down materials costs, pay utility bills, deal with unions, and so on.  When we have more time, we’ll study our data to inform our decisions, and maybe even refine what we collect.  But right now we’re in a time crunch!

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