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Unplugging the addiction to information

David M. Levy, a victim of information overload who is also a computer scientist at the University of Washington's Information School, believes information-polluted people need to organize and protect psychic space and quiet time.
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"The pace of life feels morally dangerous to me," Richard Ford, the novelist, wrote six years ago.

It has only gotten worse since then, complains David M. Levy, a victim of information overload who is also a computer scientist at the University of Washington's Information School.

Levy is all but helpless, he says, when new e-mail arrives. He feels obliged to open it. He is similarly hooked on the news, images and nonsense that spill out of the Internet. He is also a receiver and sometimes a transmitter of "surfer's voice," the blanched prattling of someone on the phone while diddling around on the Web.

"We are living lives of Web fragments," he said. "We don't remember that it is part of our birthright as human beings to have space and silence for our thoughts."

Levy is fed up and starting tonight -- with the help of cardiologists, monks, storytellers, hypertext editors, Zen masters and a choir -- he is doing something about it. He has organized a conference here called "Information, Silence and Sanctuary," which will diagnose and prescribe treatment for what is ailing Levy -- and, in his view, most of the developed world.

Information-polluted people need to organize and protect psychic space and quiet time, Levy believes, much as environmentalists organized in the 1960s to protect wetlands and old-growth forests.

Then, there was DDT, which did a marvelous job of killing mosquitoes -- and much else in the natural world.

Now, there are home media centers, multi-tasking devices that allow people to sit in their living rooms, watch television, burn CDs, surf the Web and instant message.

At the office, according to a Wall Street Journal report on research carried out at the University of California at Irvine, workers flutter from spreadsheet to e-mail to Internet to phone about once every three minutes.

This week's conference seems likely to prescribe info-overload treatment that is similar to what Levy has prescribed for his own life.

"For me, one day a week is unplugged," said Levy, who has a doctorate in computer science from Stanford University and who, before moving to Seattle three years ago, was a researcher for 15 years at the Palo Alto Research Center. That is where researchers invented the personal computer, the mouse and much of the technology that Levy now frets about. "We had seen the future and it was us," he has written about his years there.

Because he is an observant Jew (and his wife is a rabbi), his unplugged day is the Sabbath. From sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday, Levy does not use e-mail, the Internet, the telephone or the television. Instead, there is candlelighting, a dinner with friends and services on Saturday morning.

Throughout the rest of his week, Levy, 53, steals shorter blocks of time. He meditates every morning before work and, if possible, skips lunch at the university to take aikido lessons. These breaks, he says, are not about playing hooky. They are work.

"Our best work requires time," he said. "It is not loosey-goosey, touchy-feely spiritualism to see the value in creating space in our lives for reflection."

While individuals have the primary responsibility for carving out time and space from the endless yowl of information, Levy says business and government should help, for the sake of higher-quality work and better citizenship. It would be helpful, he said, if the federal government required that everyone get at least some paid vacation, and if managers understood that time away from one's desk is essential to the bottom line.

"At the workplace, managers need to allow for value in things that don't look like work," Levy said. "Information is not enough. In a democratic society, if you don't have time, or make time, to live with that information, to reflect on it, you will not have a deeply grounded opinion. You become numb."

After he finished his doctorate at Stanford University, Levy jumped at a chance to escape what he calls the "stultifying narrowness of computer work." He moved to London in 1981 to study calligraphy and bookbinding. He spent entire weekends in a garret in southwest London with a quill in his hand.

"Something about the rhythms of that life have stayed with me," Levy said. "I found that I experienced the world differently when I was quiet in that way."

His time with a quill combined with his years at the Palo Alto think tank to inspire "Scrolling Forward," his 2001 book about documents, reading and writing in the digital age. It also helped inspire his three-day conference, which is being bankrolled by the MacArthur Foundation and the National Science Foundation.

After the conference has come and gone, Levy concedes that he will remain semi-addicted to information overload.

At sunset every Saturday, he lights a Havdalah candle, which symbolizes the separation of the Sabbath from the rest of the week. Then he races upstairs in his house to check his e-mail.

-- Blaine Harden