Finding Flow In Post-Print Era

What is the difference between knowledge and information?

Ten or twenty years ago questions that most of us, who wanted to publish a poem or a quick prose on the Web, faced weren’t so obvious. Today more and more people are asking these questions that once remained within the serious academic sphere: What is the difference between knowledge and information? Is it possible to make sense of the world around us out of the massive explosion of information that’s occurring for some time right now? How much information is required to improve the quality of one’s life? How much should you know before you can claim that you truly know? Can one produce truly new information? Can new style justify duplication of old information? Should we demand total transparency from our governments? Does the real-world definition of privacy still apply in the virtual world? What about copyright?

In order to find right answers to these questions, the information architects of our generation have to go back in time to the old museums and cold libraries and re-discover the wisdom buried in the pre-print, print and post-print artifacts. We must uncover the secret recipe to ‘flow’—a state of mind where you are ‘being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.’

Read John Geirland’s interview with the guru of flow for Wired magazine:

According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, great Web sites are not about navigating content, but staging experience. A compelling Web site transforms a random walk into an exhilarating chase. The key, says psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is a finely tuned sense of rhythm, involvement, and anticipation known as “flow.” Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “CHICK-sent-me-high-ee”), a professor at the University of Chicago, has spent more than 25 years researching flow, a state of “intense emotional involvement” and timelessness that comes from immersive and challenging activities such as software coding or rock climbing. His work is studied by marketing specialists like Vanderbilt University’s Donna Hoffman and Thomas Novak, who write that flow is “a central construct when considering consumer navigation on commercial Web sites.” In books like Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, Csikszentmihalyi explores the implications of flow for personal and societal evolution.

John: What do you mean by flow?

Mihaly: Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.

John: How can a Web site be designed to stimulate and sustain a flow experience?

Mihaly: A Web site that promotes flow is like a gourmet meal. You start off with the appetizers, move on to the salads and entrées, and build toward dessert. Unfortunately, most sites are built like a cafeteria. You pick whatever you want. That sounds good at first, but soon it doesn’t matter what you choose to do. Everything is bland and the same. Web site designers assume that the visitor already knows what to choose. That’s not true. People enter Web sites hoping to be led somewhere, hoping for a payoff.

John: So goals are important?

Mihaly: Goals transform a random walk into a chase. You need clear goals that fit into a hierarchy, with little goals that build toward more meaningful, higher-level goals. Here you are, tracking the footprints of some animal you haven’t seen. That’s exhilarating. Then there’s the question of feedback. Most Web sites don’t very much care what you do. It would be much better if they said: “You’ve made some interesting choices” or “You’re developing a knowledge of Picasso.” There’s also the ability to challenge. Competition is an easy way to get into flow.

John: Internet marketers embrace flow as the “glue that holds consumers in the online environment.” Are people more easily influenced while in a state of flow?

Mihaly: Actually, they’re probably more critical. A flow experience has got to be challenging. Anything that is not up to par is going to be irritating or ignored.

John: Your interest in flow came out of your work on the psychology of creativity. What advice do you have for online content creators who want to be more creative?

Mihaly: Realize that change and downtime are important. I found that if a painter relates to objects only through vision, his work is much less original than a painter who walks up to the object, smells it, throws it in the air, and manipulates it. The variety of sensory inputs allows you to create a visual image that has all kinds of dimensions bubbling up inside it. We are still a multimedia organism. If we want to push the envelope of complexity further, we have to use all of our devices for accessing information – not all of which are rational.
John: Flow depends on the ability to engage in intense concentration. But media, like television, seem to be shortening our attention spans.

Mihaly: It’s true that some kids who have grown up on only television fare have ridiculously short attention spans. One problem television poses is that it doesn’t provide children with the physical evidence of cause and effect. In olden times, if you didn’t get up and out of bed at 5 a.m. to milk the cows, you knew those cows would soon start screaming. What you did had consequences. Now children are passive observers of information without any responsibility.

John: Does the interactivity of the Net recapture part of that cause and effect?

Mihaly: Yes, to the extent that you have to play by the rules and each move has a consequence. Still, it is a symbolic causal system, like playing chess, and it may present too narrow a set of consequences. Playing chess is not the whole world, and there are chess champions – like Bobby Fischer – who are absolute babies in terms of operating in society.

John: In your book The Evolving Self, you wrote about promoting small social units, or cells, that would direct the course of evolution. Do you now see online communities filling that function?

Mihaly: Possibly. The cells I wrote about would be made up of people in the same locale who share some common interests and concerns, which are easy to translate into commitment. On the other hand, online communities are easy to create, but they are also easy to ignore and drop out of. There has to be a common business interest or ideology before an online community can have much leverage.

John: Will the Net be a tool for advancing the evolutionary goal of a more complex consciousness?

Mihaly: The Net allows the easy exchange of information and the communication of values. But I’m still fighting the notion that the Net is really going to result in a more complex vision of reality. When things become too easy, they also end up becoming more sloppy. In the Middle Ages, for example, people were willing to walk from Stockholm to Munich to meet somebody who had something important to say. They listened and thought seriously about what they heard. Now, communication is instantaneous. I’m afraid after a while we may not pay much attention to it. The gates of attention allow very few things to come in.