stocks

Reddit users significantly compromise the ability of law enforcement officers to find out who planted the Boston bombs — in response to which Reddit just shrugs. AP’s Twitter account gets hacked and the stock market freaks out.

So we have a situation in which people feel the need to have information without delay, and similarly feel the need to act on the data they receive instantly. Which is to say, people are collaborating in an environment that conspires to eliminate evaluation, reflection, and discernment.

So perhaps we should be asking ourselves this: for a person in a given line of work, or with a given set of interests, what’s the ideal period for information retrieval? That is, how long a period should pass between my dips into the data stream? Perhaps people who buy and sell stocks should try to think on a day-by-day basis, not a minute-by-minute one: instead of worrying about being Left Behind by an instant mad rush, they should step back and allow irrational surges to flow through the market, and then step back in when things have settled down. They might lose opportunities in some cases, but I suspect they would also be spared many foolish decisions.

But maybe a daily period is too short. Maybe traders and analysts should think in yearly terms, to ignore the fluctuations that happen even over weeks or months. I don’t know. Noah Millman, help me out here.

But I’m intrigued by the idea that every endeavor that trades in information has this ideal period for information retrieval. Call it task-related data periodicity or something. But even if we were to know what, for our particular tasks and projects, that period is, we can’t do anything to stop other people from immersing themselves constantly in the data flow and being directed by it.

Consider the intemperate behavior of the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors last year when they fired the University’s president, Teresa Sullivan. The Visitors had been reading too many excited articles about “the technological transformation of the American university!” and felt that Sullivan and the rest of the administration needed to act immediately to restructure the entire institution. They were unable to see any value in waiting to see whether this “transformation” was going to happen at all, much less whether it had commendable consequences. In all this the Visitors — people charged to conserve a very large and (by American standards) very old institution — behaved in a manner that can only be called foolish.

So the question I’m left with is this: if I am confronted daily by a firehose of information, how can I build into my life the necessary discipline of reflective patience?