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Too Little, Too Fast

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The presentation for Google Wave was as compelling as any driven out of Silicon Valley's servers – the engineering team demonstrated how Google's new collaboration suite enable participants to interactively review documents and media while conducting interactive dialog.

One video snippet showed how a user can open a message entry box and begin typing, while the collaborators were able to see each character (as typed) echoed on their screens in near real time. The audience howled with delight. phone and junk

Now, everyone can see how often I use the backspace key and need to use a spellchecker.

Great.

Google Wave is the part of the next generation of messaging and collaboration tools that build on the avalanche of technologies designed to keep us more interconnected than ever through web-based applications and their 'small footprint' cousins known as mobile applications.

But as a developer of technology, and one who tries to accept the responsibility of turning technology into solutions, I find myself increasingly challenged to defend increasing bandwidth and response times as valuable tools that can be used for complex problem solving.

We all know that 'real' problems, those requiring engineering solutions, breakthroughs in chemistry, and medicine – require intense work, work that involves reflection, concerted effort, and the need to express ideas not easily captured by the keyboard.

But much of social networking focuses on the instant connection to short messages sent by members of our 'community' – or marketers who have barged into our intimate roster of e-mails. (I already get three different alerts for every single e-mail I receive regarding male enhancement products.)

We don't need research to tell us that our increasing connectivity demands more multi-tasking each day. But we do have research by the American Psychological Association  ('Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching')  that hints at diminished efficiency – switching among from tasks (like reading e-mail to writing documents) costs us 20-40% in terms of intellectual energy.

Columnist and author Maggie Jackson uses her book 'Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age' to stoke the flames of the argument that  information access is no guarantee of increased knowledge.

Yes, there is research that indicates our connecting technologies encourage some to develop a more diverse social network which is essential to a sense of social well-being ('Social Isolation and New Technology', Pew Internet & American Life Project). (Researchers are unclear if the broader social network is 'caused' by technology, or if technology users are more socially connected anyway).

But aside from providing a sense of social well being, technology that aids in problem-solving must enhance the transformation of information into knowledge. In that space, I find myself on shaky ground.

How does the technologist respond to questions asked by doctors, engineers, and researchers who ask me to explain the value of being constantly connected to every message when their profession requires them to pay attention to something other than their iPhone or Blackberry?

How and when will the current wave of cloud-based, socially networked, widget-driven applications enable us to do something more than buzz each other?

There is no doubt that INBASCETs (INternet Based Access To Socially Connected EveryThing) will become more valuable to non-believers with the next generation of application developers – technically literate folks who figure out how to build lesson-plans and educational role-playing into Twitter accounts, how to work around the keyboard's limitations when it comes to expressing mathematics and chemistry, and how to develop newer writing styles that deliver content with depth on devices designed for glancing and skimming.

Developers of the core technologies behind social networking need to help this 'second tier' of application designers by reaching outside of their comfort zone and work with subject matter experts (in areas other than web technologies) to build services that foster analysis and speak to the intricacies of problem-solving.

And until 'connectivity' delivers something more than a friend's opinion on a local restaurant, I fear that social networking will do little more than add to the stream of messages whose primary purpose is to stand out amidst an increasing clutter of irrelevance.