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Bit literacy: an overview

Wednesday, January 28, 2004
by Mark Hurst

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Over the years lots of readers have asked me to say a little more about bit literacy, so here's an overview.

I wrote this essay in May 2000. It was almost four years ago: before Congressional legislation against unwanted e-mail; before the TiVo became popular; before Apple's iPhoto was launched; before 12-year-olds got sued for downloading music.

Obviously, bits have become more important to the average technology user since then. In fact, I find that the essay - although it predates those developments - is even more relevant in 2004. Thus I plan to write more about bit literacy this year.

(About the essay: Richard Saul Wurman asked me to write this essay for inclusion in his book "Information Anxiety 2," a sequel to his seminal work from ten years before. This essay appears in the book on pages 6 and 7. Amazon sells the book here.)

. . .

Bit literacy
by Mark Hurst
May 2000

Information anxiety is more important today than ever, thanks to the arrival of the bit. Ten years ago, Americans may have felt some anxiety over the magazines and newspapers piling up at home, but today the anxiety is increasing as bits appear in all areas of our lives. E-mail, websites, e-newsletters, chat rooms, e-mail, instant messages, and more e-mail -- all of these streams of bits can interrupt us, and keep us engaged, anywhere and anytime. Devices made to hold these bits are springing up, too: PDA's and cell phones bring us the bits when we're away from our PC.

For those who own a PC or a PDA, there is little escape from the bits. Even when we turn off the device, the bits pile up quietly, ready to flood us with anxiety when we return to the device. If anything, an escape from the bits can be dangerous. Take a week-long vacation without e-mail, and upon return, a bloated inbox welcomes us back to work with seven times more bits.

And this is still *early* in the current explosion of digital information. One research study recently predicted that, within a few years, the number of e-mails we each receive every day will increase to *forty* times its current volume. That's a lot of bits demanding our attention -- just from e-mail. It's likely that still other devices and other bitstreams will threaten the typical American with exponentially more information anxiety.

The problem of near-infinite bits, however, does have a solution. The solution is what I call "bit literacy." Bit literacy is an awareness of bits: what bits are, how they affect our lives, and how we can survive in a society permeated by bits. With that awareness, bit literate people are able to *control* the bits, and not be controlled *by* the bits, that are becoming central to our lives and jobs.

All of bit literacy can be distilled into a simple philosophy that allows people to regain their life, free from information anxiety, while still living in the bits. Here is the four-word philosophy:

Let the bits go.

That's right, let the bits go. Don't acquire them. Don't try to acquire them, and don't worry about acquiring them, since the bits will come to you. The bits touch our lives at so many points that it's impossible to escape them, and it's insane to try to acquire *all* of them. Instead, being bit literate means constantly working on *letting go* of as many of the bits as we can. Bit literacy allows us to clear a path of emptiness through the jungle of bits that surround and distract us; the emptiness allows us to see.

Here's a real-life example: Recently I visited a website where visitors can sign up to receive e-mail newsletters, published by respected companies, on any number of topics. Internet news, sports commentary, entertainment gossip -- all of these were available to me at the click of a button. I could get ALL of this information, delivered to my e-mail inbox weekly... for free! And unlike subscriptions to paper magazines, these bits wouldn't clutter my apartment or need recycling. (I didn't sign up; I was there to unsubscribe from a newsletter.) So, one might reasonably ask, what's the problem of getting some potentially valuable or entertaining bits, if they don't clutter my living space, don't weigh me down, and don't cost a penny?

The problem is that the bits are different from paper-based information. Bits are more engaging, more immediate, more personal, and more abundant than other types of information. In the middle of lunch with a friend, we're interrupted by bits -- perhaps a stock quote -- and we instinctively reach for our PDA to see what it is. Or we sit down to "read through some e-mail" and blow through two hours like it was twenty minutes. Like the magazines and other anxiety-producing information, the bits call for our attention -- but the bits call more loudly, more sweetly, more frequently, and in more areas of our lives.

These radically different qualities of bits mean that we must engage bits in a radically different way. Bit literacy is radical about letting the bits go. We can't let all the bits go -- we must engage them first, and inevitably save the few most important bits -- but our *default* behavior must be to let the bits go, rather than to acquire and save them.

Here are some ways you can let the bits go: Keep your e-mail inbox empty, by deleting your e-mails after saving the few that you *must* retain for later reference. Restrict the interruptions you allow on your cell phone and PDA, so that the interruptions that do come through are the important ones. And certainly don't open up any new bitstream -- a newsletter, a ticker, or any other ongoing feed -- unless it's vitally important. Instead, concentrate on letting go of the bits that find their way to you; the few remaining bits will be all the more valuable to you as a result.

I'd like to emphasize that last sentence: when a person becomes bit literate, what remains after all the letting go is *valuable*. I equate that with *meaningful*. Because -- and here's the kicker -- the bits by themselves aren't meaningful. Bits are just pointers to meaning, just containers of thoughts, just phantom images of the real item. The meaning is what lies behind the bits, what *drives* the bits. In their super-abundant quantities, swarming and overwhelming our consciousness, bits obscure the very meaning that created them. It's only after clearing out a path of emptiness that we can arrive at the meaning *behind* the bits.

This is true bit literacy: going through the bits by letting them go, then arriving at the meaning *behind* the bits. A common example is the employee's e-mail inbox that fills up with e-mail from numerous projects. The real issue isn't the number of e-mails coming in, but rather the number of projects that the employee signed up for. The meaning of the bits is not the bits themselves, but what they point to: in this case, the employee needs to commit to fewer projects

Bit literacy is uniquely suited to this moment in history. We have never needed bit literacy before, because the bits were never so numerous or engaging. Ten years ago we engaged bits through a "user interface" on a "personal computer." But the bits were bottled up, not very engaging, and couldn't touch us except when we sat in front of the screen. And there were so few bits that we could give each bit the individual attention it called for. Today, and much more so in a few years, the bits reach us even when we leave the computer screen. On every street corner, in every restaurant, in every house, while we eat, while we sleep, the bits pile up. And they call for us.

To have a chance to survive the infinite bits in the future, we'll need a lot of bit literacy: in our behavior (letting go of bits), in our beliefs (searching for the meaning behind the bits), and in our technology -- with simpler tools granting us control over the bits, and working with bits in their simplest formats. And as we shift to becoming not just consumers but *creators* of bits, the discipline of bit literacy will show us how to *create* bits differently: mindfully, meaningfully, and with an acceptance of their essential emptiness.

. . .

To start putting bit literacy into practice, read my free e-mail management report.

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