Brain Brandy: A plea for information density, not information for the dense

The other day I was reading the New York Times online which was reporting on the financial crisis a year after the crash.  They created the most fantastic time-line to organize events, articles, and videos across a year -- all having to do with the debacle and its aftermath.  When I was teaching at Harvard Business School in the early 1990s, and some of the more facile internet tools were just coming out, a time-line like the one in the Times would have been a significant course development effort.  Today, it's simply the interface to the NYTimes library of content.  How cool is that? monnet_cognac_glass

What makes it so wonderful?  It is the way they condensed much information into a crisp experience.  As Edward Tufte points out so brilliantly in his many books, increasing information density enriches the viewer's experience.   We crave brain brandy -- data, information, and experiences that have been thoughtfully condensed to make our experience more powerful and palatable.

Many people talk about information overload, but I think intellectual laziness creates as more havoc than any twitter stream.  Author after author forces the burden of "distillation" onto the audience.  (I know as a blogger, I've got some nerve to make this point, but...  what can a poor boy do?)  As most know, brandy is the distillation of wine.  Wine, of course, is the fruit of earlier fermentation and before that grape growing.  I remember as a young boy collecting bunch after bunch of concord grapes in the backyard of our three-decker in Brockton, Massachusetts to make wine with my Irish grandmother.  It was work! and brandy is more work still.

Why don't people take the time?  First, because our standards are getting very low.  Anyone who can actually watch the weather channel can sit through information density that borders on a Dr. Seuss book.  Second, PowerPoint is a powerful crutch to lazy thinking.  Most importantly, if you make a list of ideas and facts, you don't have to make an argument.  It is as if you were constructing a skeleton and did not have to craft any ligaments among the bones.  It is the ligaments that can be very tricky to fabricate.  Think of the anterior cruciate threading through the knee or the clever sliding joints of the ankles and wrists.  I think the linkages are where most of the hard work lies, and presentation software lets the author pile bone on bone -- with no connections. Of course,  I'm not the first to note that presentation software adds wonderful patinas of professionalism to pablem and profound thoughts alike.

We crave brain brandy because encoding is one of the most human things we do.  Language is distillation.  Books are more compact than conversation.  Computers are even more compressed in their ability to encode.  I won't go so far as to say encoding is the only thing that separates us from the animals, but it is certainly one of the most distinctive things of human kind.

The good news is that the state of graphics, illustration, writing, and thinking is so bloated, that those with concision can differentiate themselves, and quickly.  We could cut out 50% of everything written, emailed, and presented and we'd all be more productive overnight.  It would just take some intellectual brandy-making to get us there.

Convenience is No Longer a Differentiator

The CIO: The duck billed platypus of the C-suite