Take it from Me

One recent morning, I learned that terrorists shot five Shiite teachers and their driver at a school in Iraq. I wish the event had been remarkable, but instead I find myself in a world in which I hear of such acts with numbing frequency. It was more notable that I was on an elevator when I saw this report. As a rule, I don't watch the news before breakfast because information like this doesn't sit easy at the best of times, much less on an empty stomach. Yet there I was on my way down to coffee, to be followed by a day of sessions in various tracks at Information Today's debut InfoX show, when content cornered me.

I don't own a cell phone and rarely carry a laptop or PDA because, quite frankly, I have too much information and communication already. I do some of my best idea-formulation (even writing) during the brief lulls in between info-streams. The content clutter has to clear and then coalesce for things to make any larger sense.

It isn't that I think I don't need to know more. I know I do. I also know that ubiquitous content—finding us wherever we are in a multitude of ways we can incorporate into our every acts—is a laudable information industry objective. Yet I often feel like my short-term memory is overflowing so that useful bits don't soak in; they spiral down some drain and are irretrievable. We all are overloaded with the concept of information overload but don't hear nearly enough about how we're going to solve the problem. Short of D. C. Engelbart's decades-old work on human intellect augmentation techniques, how are we ever going to ingest all we must to be informed? I, for one, hope the answer will not be ever-present televisions blasting news at me before my morning caffeine. However, I saw a commercial this weekend extolling the virtues of a new mobile sports content offering that would allow husbands to do nice things for their wives, like go to the grocery store, while never having to miss a moment of essential sporting action. Multitasking at its finest.

An early, immature interpretation of ubiquitous content was that of screens foisting content upon us at every turn. Though anyone who has glanced at the Times Square "Zipper" knows the novelty-appeal of reading news from the side of a building, few of New York's midtown commuters forgo the Times for it. Simply putting content out there in new formats or on new devices does not mean that it will change consumer habits. Transformation is afoot, however.

In October, Apple released the latest iPod, which not only stores and plays back 15,000 songs, it does the same for 150 hours of video. The new video iPod plays audiobooks, audio and video podcasts, movies, videos, and television shows. While the music industry is still rocking from the aftershocks of Apple's business model, which profits from hardware rather than piecemeal content sales, it is the addition of video to the iPod purview that propelled the iPod into the domain of business content delivery. In 2005, podcasting took center stage as the hot content delivery mechanism, and with this latest Apple release, a multitude of content types will find their way into the hands of untold millions of consumers. While mobile phones and PDAs helped break content out of the (computer) box, there is something stunning about the power of the Pod. Already, articles espouse the next wave of iPod-enabled entertainment: micro-television, which will allow people to watch TV anywhere they choose.

It is this last point—choice—that has risen to the top of ubiquitous content tenets today. Time, method, and context must be left to the discretion of the content consumer. For many, ingesting alone does not suffice; information will need to be digested and used to fuel action (or disregarded as waste). This is not limited to the business information we feel we must read, watch, or listen to; all of the content we choose to consume—from pop culture to fine art and world events—informs our thought processes.

As we find content more closely woven into the fabric of our lives, let us hope that it blends in seamlessly. Ubiquity is not invasive, it is pervasive. Better yet, it is invisible. When something is so easy to use that it becomes a natural extension of our daily lives, it achieves ultimate utility.

Given the ever-increasing quantity of business information I am required to peruse, I never have enough time to read recreationally. Left to my own devices, I'd have a three-book-a-week habit. So I have compromised: I listen to audio books in the car. Right now, I'm listening to a charming magical-realist look at the lives of Middle Eastern expatriates in L.A. called Crescent: A Novel, by Jordanian American Diana Abu-Jaber. I used to think audio books were cheating; that the narrator's interpretation would color what should have been a picture left to my imagination alone. Now I just view it as a distinct way of experiencing the written word. In Crescent, I hear Arabic phrases—which I might have skimmed over in reading—in their lyric pronunciation. One such resonant phrase is "min eedi," which means "from my hand." In Arabic, this has an intimate connotation: come closer, take this from me personally.