The iPad: Risky Game-Changer

Will the iPad, and competing tablet computers, help us manage information overload or add to the distractions?
March 9, 2011 AT 11:00 AM
Jerry Mechlin
By Jerry Mechling  |  Contributor
A consultant and former faculty member of the Harvard Kennedy School

The iPad is an impressive device. Its battery lasts the day, and it's light enough and small enough to carry around. The screen is big enough for comfortable reading. The touch controls offer intuitive navigation for text, maps and pictures. The processor is fast enough for facile interactivity with numbers, text, audio and video. The iPad 2 has two cameras, one facing forward for pictures and video and the other facing the user for video conferencing. Then, there are all those inexpensive apps.

But technology is not what's most important. It's information overload. The total amount of information available since history began is growing at 30 percent per year. With oceans of data available, the struggle to find the right stuff at the right time and place is difficult, distressing and distracting. Will the iPad, and competing tablet computers, help us manage overload or add to the distractions?

"Ready-to-hand" technology such as the iPad opens up small bits of time for uses that, in the aggregate, can strategically change how effort is allocated. This can give us more time to manage overload. To be productive, we used to need an office equipped with tools that stayed in the office. What's increasingly true is we can now work anywhere there's a good Internet connection. Smartphones like the iPhone, Blackberry and Android have made that true for e-mail, text messages and material that can be absorbed through a small screen. What the iPad and other tablets are doing is extending ready to hand to every report or book, plus new sources of information that transcend the constraints of books.

The opportunities tablets provide for engagement can also help manage overload. Interactive engagement is critically important for using information well, and constitutes more than simply reading a text from top to bottom. It includes tapping into emotions and other forms of human intelligence with sound, pictures and video. It includes scanning, taking notes, raising questions, checking references and testing models -- all the things that exercise the brain so information can be properly understood and used.

But engagement can also be a threat. So far, advertising, entertainment and social networking have generated the most engagement on the iPad. Those apps have made the iPad popular, but not necessarily productive. Remember the professor who began her class by pulling out a beaker overflowing with rocks? When she asked if the beaker was full, students said "yes." Then she pulled out a container with pebbles, another with sand and another with water, and then successfully sifted them all into the gaps of the original beaker. The lesson here is that if you can break things into smaller pieces, you can often fit them in.

But beware: If you don't put the big rocks in first, you can't get them in later.

What's important is that, as a ready-to-hand tool, the iPad and competing tablets are opening large quantities of previously inaccessible time for new activities. These can be used productively, but may also serve as a distraction. Using the time well is a strategic concern, not a technology issue. Here's what to do:

  • At the personal level, explore what tablets can do (and not do) for your own work and lifestyle. Tablet applications should be especially valuable for those managing information-intensive interactions in "away from the desk" settings. To find out what ready to hand can do for you, get in deeply enough to judge for yourself.
  • At the institutional level, explore the impacts of tablets on information sharing and consumption, especially among specific groups of trainees, certain categories of field or case workers, steering committees and so on. Your institution should make a strategic analysis of how tablets can make ready to hand a strategic resource for critical interactions and processes.
  • At the institutional level, explore the impacts of tablets on information production and distribution, especially by making information more engaging. Your institution should make a strategic analysis of how to improve communications through the exploding capabilities of video conferencing and other multimedia interactions.
  • At the multi-institutional (and societal) level, we need to exploit economies of scale for information production and consumption among multi-institutional communities, such as health care, education and libraries. For example, we now subsidize information distribution by purchasing books through libraries. Why not take fuller advantage of economies of scale through nationwide funding for online library materials? To harvest maximum productivity, equity and transparency, we need to think of information infrastructure not simply as data and networks, but also as the tools needed to make sense of data where and when it is needed.

The iPads are coming. They could critically accelerate and improve our utilization of digital information, and through that, the performance of government. Thus, they possess great strategic potential, but they could also serve as a risky distraction. Get ready.