Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Not now!

from henryfaber @ Flickr

Yesterday was a bad day. I didn’t get much done. And I didn’t get much done because I was continuously interrupted. The ubiquity of interruption is neatly captured by Lewis Mumford when he said
“…the only place sacred from interruption is the private toilet.” There's a moment in Iannucci's brilliant The Thick of It where this sentiment is felt by the weary minister for Social Affairs, High Abbott,

All I do: I work, I eat, I shower, that's it. Occasionally I take a dump, just as a sort of treat. I mean that really IS my treat. I sit there and I think - no, I'm not gonna read the New Statesman, this time is just for me. This is quality time just for me. Is it normal?"

These cubicles of peace are retreats from “the malady of modernity”, from our “age of interruption”.

As interruption tickled my curiosity I spent a bit of time learning about it. The main news – unsurprisingly - is that it’s a cognitive kick in the nuts. (But see here for a positive account.) It is the hand that smacks all your papers out of your grasp letting them scatter to the floor. Interruptions mean you’ll take longer to get back to where you were and you’ll also make more mistakes doing so.

This is merely annoying for the majority of us but it’s a serious issue when safety is important, like flying, surgery or warfare. There have been accidents where a fat finger has been pointed at interruption (like here). As a result, there is some serious research into it.

Where it gets interesting is when you ask ‘What to do about it?’ “Our problems are man made; therefore, they can be solved by man”. In other words than those of JFK, technology got us into this mess, so it can get out us. And some of the ways it intends to do this are intriguing.

By designing software that is sensitive to our human foibles, all sorts of gadgets can be endowed with the ability to interrupt at more appropriate times. One thing that has made this easier is the finding that pupil size and subjective workload are correlated; the eyes are literally the windows to attention. This is already being put to use by the likes of Volvo and aerospace companies.

Other factors can be chucked into the mix too, like current activities on or off a system, ambient volume, face and speech recognition, interrupter identity and so on, to build Bayesian statistical models. These can then imbue systems with an awareness of the context, putting that phone call through to voice mail when you are navigating a tricky roundabout or prioritising incoming information to the air traffic controller’s screen.

All very fascinating and very likely to be helping me have a more productive day than I did yesterday in the near future. For more on this area, have fun with this beast.

No comments: