Managing the information glut

Dennis Berman's article in the Wall Street Journal, "Technology Has Us So Plugged Into Data, We Have Turned Off" talks about a phenomenon called "absent presence" or "surfer's voice". He refers to it as "...a habit of half-heartedly talking to someone on the telephone while simultaneously surfing the Web, reading e-mails, or trading instant messages." Because many of my meetings are conference calls I frequently hear the person on the other end typing while I get the "uh huh" responses. I have to direct specific questions to people that require more than yes or no answers in order to get their attention sometimes. Then I get, "I'm sorry, can you repeat the question?"

Related to computers, this article makes me think of two different problems. One is the ability focus on singular tasks to successful execution or completion. The other is how to get back to one of the many open tasks you have waiting for your attention. One of the ideas the article throws out is that of using software to help people regain their focus on singular tasks after going off on tangents -- responding to IM messages, etc. They suggest a simplistic solution in limiting extra information seeking sessions, e.g. with web reading, news feed watching, to help make the information glut manageable. But, it's hard to call all of that reading "extra" when some of it is business-related environmental scanning and simply beefing up your knowledge on topics of interest.

How can software help this problem? One area of focus seems to be on using visualization to alter the desktop metaphor to some more meaningful UI that presents a stream of information. See Jeff Raskin or David Gelertner on this topic. It's that idea of figuring out what you're working on that's interesting to me. I think of this problem in terms of how I keep track of "to do" items. With a list on paper of the prioritized tasks for the day, I can periodically check on how I'm meeting the day's goals. It's a high-level view of things I should be juggling with the goal of eventually finishing them one by one. In terms of a computer UI, I see Apple's Exposé as a step in the right direction towards helping users visualize what they're juggling at once. Apparently Microsoft's Longhorn may be considering ways to help users make sense of what they're juggling too.

With dozens of devices and applications beeping for your attention, is the only effective way to give business users better signal to noise to just tell them tune out a little and eliminate the number of things they try to watch? Or is there a far off concept for computer users that will make this watching of information and managing of individual processes more manageable -- a solution that is reasonable, usable, and won't be met with too much cultural adversity?