(written 9/28/03) Not exactly a rare sentiment, I know. But I’ve been trying to consider why I dislike certain meetings so much. I think it has a lot to do with how I like to take in information. I’m not a linear thinker. Or, perhaps, I’m too accelerated a linear thinker. When somebody is presenting an argument to me, I can generally see where they’re going, and want to skip ahead, because it’s a straight line. So I get really impatient when they go through every step of the argument, and tune out and think about how much I hate meetings.
I recently read Edward Tufte’s rant about Powerpoint, which is where some of these ideas are coming from. Tufte laments the growing prevalence of Powerpoint and slideware in our organizations, feeling that it weakens verbal and spatial reasoning by forcing all arguments into an abbreviated, bullet-pointed, linear form. The human brain is much better at coordinating things spatially than temporally, so expecting people to remember the bulletpoint from four slides ago and coordinating those with the graphs on the next three is foolhardy.
But, back to meetings. I don’t think I’d be going out on a cognitive science limb by saying that different people have different preferred methods of absorbing information. In my case, I prefer a random-access approach, being able to flip back and forth, rather than being held to somebody else’s idea of how I should view the information. Other people prefer graphical representations. Some people learn best through hearing, some by reading. It varies wildly. Meetings impose a linear auditory information transfer on everybody, which makes it inefficient for everybody. I can’t tell you the number of hour-long meetings which I’ve missed and/or skipped and been able to extract all the information useful to me by asking somebody three minutes worth of questions. That’s an inefficiency rate of 95%!
Back when I was a grad student TA, I hated teaching sections. Even with a lesson plan, I felt that it was hard to convey useful information to people without customizing it for them. I much preferred one-on-one problem-solving sessions, where there was an immediate feedback that allowed me to figure out how to map the problem-solving methods into terms that each individual student would understand. For some of them, the Socratic method of asking questions worked well, for others working examples with them helped, for others a discussion of the general principles was what they needed. Trying to incorporate all of those into teaching a section was impossible. But when they came to the TA’s lounge and asked for help during office hours, I felt I could really get through to them.
One of the ideas that has floated around my mind for years is something I read in a science fiction novel, Beggars in Spain, by Nancy Kress. The details of the book are unimportant because it’s not really that good, but she postulated an existence of a group of super-geniuses who developed methods for optimizing information transfer between them. By mapping out their preferred brain tendencies, they were able to take the ideas and arguments from one person and transform them into the preferred method of information transfer for another person, so that they essentially became telepathic.
Obviously that’s unrealistic, but we can start considering ways we can customize the flow of information to take advantage of our brains’ preferred methods of data entry. In a rudimentary sense, that’s what I was doing in those one-on-one sessions as a TA. But there’s a lot of work to be done in this area. I’m sure a field of study exists studying how people absorb information, but I don’t know what it’s called or who’s studying it. If somebody reads this who knows, please drop me a line. But I think it’d be fascinating and immensely useful.
The world has grown too complicated for any one person to understand it all even at a basic level. But many breakthroughs in science and engineering come from crossover of knowledge, when techniques and ideas from one field are applied to another. With the exploding amount of information in each field, it’s almost impossible to keep up even within one’s own specific sub-discipline, let alone across fields. So methods of improving information transfer should be a higher priority than ever. It may be our only hope of catalyzing new breakthroughs in the future.
Plus, it’ll get me out of all those damn meetings.