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Today's information overload that spelled the end of an interface

I grew up in the information age. Not necessarily the knowledge age, I agree, but certainly the age of data. I can distinctly remember the smouldering argument over how the word 'data' should be pronounced, and whether it was singular or plural. To say DAHTA in those days was to be determinedly patriotic, whereas to say DAYTA was to be currying favour with the Yanks. As we all know, the Yanks won in the end, which was only fair as they invented the typewriter, the first word processor.

Today most people don't know how important typewriters once were, and scarcely one in a million would know that when the United States entered the Second World War, all the typewriter factories in the country except one were converted to the manufacture of small arms, fuses, shells and other munitions. The exception, the Woodstock Typewriter Company, was authorised to produce up to 18,000 typewriters a year for military use. At first sight this measure might seem to indicate that typewriters were not of great strategic value, but they were. Within a year further US legislation called for the surrender to the military of all surplus typewriters, and 650,000 more were acquired for the armed forces by this means.

In Britain, even more drastic measures were passed into law. From 7 May 1943, all typewriters were rationed and no typewriter was allowed to be bought or sold, even privately, without a licence. This did not prevent a ship laden with typewriters striking a mine during the Normandy landings with the loss of 20,000 machines.

My own first data-processing instrument (after pen and inkwell at school) was an ancient Erika portable typewriter with a QWERTZ keyboard instead of a QWERTY. I kept this machine for many years on the basis that, in conjunction with half a dozen sheets of foolscap paper and a bottle of correction fluid, it might come in useful during a power cut or a nuclear attack, but it never did. Instead, it gave place to an Olympia electric and then an enormous Olympia Supertype Electronic, a typewriter that actually had an 8k memory. From then I moved on into bona fide computer word processing and found out that 'data' was no longer the issue.

Information had taken over and increased floor heights, air conditioning, false ceilings, raised floors, enormous risers and so on were everywhere. But now the problem was not communication, so much as too much communication.

Nowadays electronic office equipment makes it so easy to send a message that everyone, from rocket scientists to checkout persons, has to be taught to restrain their urge to communicate. Even then the emerging scale of the problem suggests that such education may be useless. According to a study carried out five years ago by American office equipment manufacturer Pitney Bowes, the average office worker now deals with 190 messages a day in the form of 52 telephone calls, 48 emails, 22 voicemails, 21 letters, 15 faxes, 11 post-it stickers, 10 telephone messages, four written notes, four overnight delivery packages and three cellular telephone calls.

Pitney Bowes describes this avalanche of distraction as 'highly disruptive', but that is surely too circumspect. University of Chicago researcher Carstairs McKillop, in the throes of his own study of information overload, has no hesitation in going further:

'We have all got used to thinking that the biggest threat to employment comes from automation, ' he says. 'But the big threat to jobs now comes from non-task-related information, and that is mushrooming. Hiring more people doesn't help because it simply generates more disruptive information. Unless something is done, nine to five as we know it will become untenable.'

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