The bane of the Information Age is information. At least when my father went to work in the factory he ably kept running for many years, he knew the aisles would still be in the same places, the machinery still exhibiting the same behaviors, and that the number of unknowns in his life would be manageable.
I'm better situated in life than he was, but I pay for it with uncertainty. The content of my job isn't machinery, but information, and the unknowns in my life can become unmanageable by the time I wake in the morning.
Before I get my wife out of bed each morning, I've already read all the way through CNN online (www.cnn.com) and one technology site, called Slashdot (www.slashdot.org). Then I read the local paper during breakfast. During the day, I usually take the time to read the BBC site (www.bbc.com), along with two or three technology sites. National Public Radio is obliging with news on the drive to and from work.
It's a treadmill I can't leave without sacrificing my edge, and nearly my livelihood itself. But it's also an inefficient way to harvest knowledge, because I have to go to the sites, look over the chaff, and tease out the wheat, each and every day. Half my time is utterly wasted.
A lot of my compatriots have found salvation in RSS. Variously given as "really simple syndication" and "rich site summary," among other names, RSS is a way to consolidate news and other content into one convenient spot, using software called an "aggregator."
An RSS aggregator goes out to the sites you pick and looks for whatever is new on those sites. As long as the sites are RSS-enabled, you get back a list of all the new things you want to see, neatly organized by source.
For example, you might scour The Wall Street Journal (www.wsj.com), The Christian Science Monitor (www.csmonitor.com), The Motley Fool (www.fool.com), a couple of humor sites, and a few of your favorite blogs, then read over the headlines and summaries to see what you want to read in more depth. You can get RSS feeds today from all the major sites on the Web, so you can get distilled content for any professional or personal interest imaginable.
The catch is that you have to set it all up. You have to get an aggregator, then pick the sites you want to monitor. This technology is so new that there aren't many standards for how aggregators work.
Some aggregators, such as FeedDemon from Bradbury Software (www.bradsoft.com), are stand-alone Windows applications. You download the trial version, then pay for it if you like it. A wizard steps you through setup.AmphetaDesk (www.disobey.com/amphetadesk) is a similar type of aggregator that displays the results in a Web page. Yet another is SharpReader (www.sharpreader.net).
Still other aggregators partner with software you're already using. NewsGator (www.newsgator.com) works with Microsoft Outlook. Headlines show up in folders, just as messages in your inbox do. Firefox, the open source browser, can act as an RSS aggregator, too, although it's a little clumsy to use.
By the way, if you haven't downloaded Firefox (www.firefox.com), I'd highly suggest you do. It may not be the world's greatest RSS aggregator, but it's a fine browser, better than Microsoft's Internet Explorer in a lot of ways.
My problem with RSS isn't technological, but emotional. There have been aggregator sites for years, places where you can read the headlines from dozens of newspapers, blogs and other sites. I've rarely used them, despite their undoubted efficiencies. I'm a true browser by nature. I don't look up a specific book in the library and go to the shelf just for that book. I look at the books that surround it, just in case one of them proves useful, too.
I tend to be suspicious of too much information consolidation. I believe in serendipity. RSS doesn't do serendipity. I tend to the philosophy that specialization is for bacteria, not for humans. RSS is a specialist's tool. No matter how wide the net you cast with your aggregator, it must still have rigid outer boundaries. The aggregator can look only for things you know in advance you'll want to see. That shuts you off from the sublime pleasure of being pleasantly blindsided by oddities.
Despite my misgivings, RSS works fine for many people I know. Learn more about it at WikiPedia (en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/RSS_(protocol)).
Altom is a senior business consultant for Perficient Consulting. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.