A decline in our ability to focus is a side effect of the otherwise powerful tools we use to gather and analyse information. A new organization has just been launched, the Information Overload Research Group, whose founders include executives from companies such as Microsoft, Google, IBM and Intel. These are the very companies that have done the most to create the information tools that undermine our ability to focus; indeed, an initiative from them to address too much information could be compared with video game programmers launching a line of Zen meditation centres. Still, it’s encouraging that the most information-intense companies are trying to overcome their own overload.
Even those of us who cheer new technologies for the choices and access they bring realize we’re early in the process of humans using these technologies wisely.
Data show that technology is a huge productivity enhancer—and a huge source of inefficiency. Research company Basex estimates that more than one-quarter of the day of the typical information worker is taken up by interruptions such as email, instant messaging, Twitter, RSS feeds and other untamed information flows. Less time is spent each day on activities such as writing emails, going to meetings or searching for information. The researchers concluded that only about one-tenth of the day is spent thinking and reflecting.
Until information technology can heal itself, there’s a lot of experimenting. Intel has tried “zero-email Fridays”. IBM has “Think Fridays”, limiting email and other interruptions. John Battelle, a Web maven and co-founder of Wired magazine, recently told his senior staff at the online advertising network Federated Media to “Take 48”, banishing the sending of emails over the weekend. The University of Chicago Law School blocks Internet access from classrooms; the dean said, “One student will visit a gossip site or shop for shoes, and within 20 minutes an entire row is shoe shopping.”
In a new book called Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, author Maggie Jackson warns that the cumulative effect of new technologies is that we may be losing our ability to maintain attention more generally. Attention requires focus, awareness and what she calls executive attention.
“Relying on multitasking as a way of life, we chop up our opportunities and abilities to make big-picture sense of the world and pursue our long-term goals,” she writes. “The way we live is eroding our capacity for deep, sustained, perceptive attention— the building block of intimacy, wisdom, and cultural progress.” Jackson concludes that “as we plunge into a new world of infinitely connectible and accessible information, we risk losing our means and ability to go beneath the surface, to think deeply.”
Likewise, in an article in the current Atlantic magazine headlined, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” author Nicholas Carr writes, “What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”
The good news is that Jackson wrote a book, not just a blog post, on this complex topic. Carr’s Atlantic article was more than 4,000 words. And executives at the most innovative technology companies are focused on solving information overload for themselves and the rest of us.
We humans can be slow, but eventually we catch up to the technologies we create and figure out how best to use them.
The Wall Street Journal
Edited excerpts. L. Gordon Crovitz is a Wall Street Journal columnist. Comments are welcome at email@example.com