A scientist examines the impact of communication advancements on personal well-being.
By RICHARD SEVEN
SEATTLE -- David Levy, a professor in the University of Washington's School of Information, believes he may have witnessed the first-ever interruption-by-e-mail. It happened back in the '70s, when he worked at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, a think tank at the forefront of today's computing world.
He and about 25 other technologists were watching a visiting scientist demonstrate how to make use of multiple parts of the computer screen. The visitor was typing and talking when a text popped up on one side of the screen. "Oh look," he said, "I've received a message!" He typed a response, sent it into cyberspace and went back to his presentation.
It was stagecraft intended to highlight one of those ta-da! moments. But not everyone was impressed -- or even pleased.
"I remember a visiting senior computer scientist from another country got very angry about it," says Levy. "He said programming requires focus and shouldn't be interrupted. He basically said, 'You call this the future?!'"
The future? Well, yes and no. E-mail, as it turns out, was just one drop in a dam-breaking flood of technology that has inundated our lives. Today, the constant pinging of your e-mail can be like the drip-drip-drip of water torture. We're swimming in doodads and options -- text messaging and search engines, Blackberries and blogs, Wi-fi, cell phones that try to do all of the above, and the promise that we haven't seen anything yet.
We're shooting through technological rapids that have opened doors and changed the dynamic of work, how we communicate and live, and sometimes even think. All these tools have made our lives easier in many ways.
But they're also stirring deep unease. Some are concerned that the need for speed is shrinking our attention spans, prompting our search for answers to take the mile-wide-but-inch-deep route and settling us into a rhythm of constant interruption in which deadlines are relentless and tasks are never quite finished.
Scientists call this phenomenon "cognitive overload," and say it encompasses the modern-day angst of stress, multitasking, distraction and data flurries.
In fact, multitasking -- a computing term that involves doing, or trying to do, more than one thing at once -- has cemented itself into our daily lives and is intensely studied.
Research has shown it to be consistently counterproductive, often foolish, unhealthy in the long run, and in the case of gabbing on the cell phone while driving, relatively dangerous. Yet it is also expected, encouraged and basically essential.
Do you have never-ending deadlines? Job uncertainty? A dual-income family life with kids? A do-more-with-less workplace? Then you multitask.
Now, add holiday shopping to the list.
Today, we can do more. And do more, faster. And do more, faster, from anywhere, all the time. You can work at home or the coffee shop or even the beach.
Is this a good thing? How do we navigate these rapids without eventually drowning? Are we allowing life to be the sum of tasks, the short term always the priority? Are we so connected that we're actually disconnected? And has anyone had enough time to focus long enough to mull a question that requires a long, complicated answer -- if there is one?
Technology and well-being
Levy, whose Ph.D. work at Stanford was in computer science and artificial intelligence, has made it his mission to ask these questions.
He's already hosted a conference -- titled "Information, Silence and Sanctuary" -- that pulled together an unlikely roster that included not only technologists and sociologists but a storyteller and a cardiologist, a poet, an economist, a monk and a CEO.
Now he is working to create the Center for Information and the Quality of Life -- a living laboratory where work and workspaces are constantly studied, redefined and redesigned so that well-being is an equal to labor.
He has chosen the perfect place for such an ambitious plan in Seattle, which is part technology, part caffeine, part rolled-up-sleeves simplicity.
"Part of what's missing from our discussion about technology, even the technology in relation to our lives, is a more positive vision of where we're trying to get to," he says. "What are the measurements and criteria of well-being in the workplace? How do we even begin to talk about that?
"How about someone who answers all his e-mail and makes all his sales calls, but develops a heart problem? What is that?"
The fear that machines are taking over our lives is hardly new.
Levy and others note its roots at least as far back as the Industrial Revolution, when the Luddites came to fame.
To be called a Luddite today is to be called hopelessly behind the techno-curve, but they weren't anti-progress so much as they were pro-jobs, especially their own. They protested mechanization in textile factories, lower wages and what they perceived as shortcuts in quality.
When our technological dreams began becoming reality, some pundits predicted we would be swamped by leisure time. That didn't happen. We're working longer and harder, and seem more stressed over downsizing and outsourcing and expectations than ever.
David Kirsh, a professor of cognitive science at the University of California-San Diego, says cognitive overload is a way of life at the office now.
"Workers can turn the ringer off the phones, possibly close doors, auto-filter e-mail and personalize search engines, and ask people to honor privacy, but blocking out sacred time segments or sealing ourselves off from outside contact, even e-mail, isn't a real option with most organizations."
Gloria Mark, a UC-Irvine professor, has been studying attention overload and multitasking among workers in a financial-services office. So far, she's found that the average employee switches tasks every three minutes, is interrupted every two minutes and has a maximum focus stretch of 12 minutes.
Multitasking and angst about its necessity have been studied for several decades, and Roman philosopher Publilius Syrus said in 100 B.C., "To do two things at once is to do neither."
Driven to distraction
Yet, multitasking is constant now. We do it because it is expected, but also because we believe we can -- sort of.
The truth, says, David Meyer, a Michigan psychologist and cognitive scientist who has run several studies on the subject, is we don't and can't do it well. We can if the tasks are simple and virtually automatic (think walking and chewing gum at the same time) but true, effective, efficient, meaningful multitasking is akin to jamming two TV signals down the same cable wire. You get static, not high-definition.
Studies show that driving and talking on your cell phone at the same time dull reaction time when you need a split-second decision. Yet most of us do it. A recent PEMCO Insurance poll on driver distraction in Washington showed that although 58 percent of 600 responding drivers said they chat on the phone while they drive, it came in second to driving while eating; 65 percent of the respondents admitted doing that.
Women are commonly thought to be better multitaskers than men. They at least seem to have more practice. But Meyer says the sexes about tie in his studies. (Researchers at the University of Edinburgh do say tropical fish apparently have multitasking down, enabling them to concentrate on shoal-mates and predators at the same time.)
Closely related to trying to do two things at once is "task-switching," which is when you flit between functions.
Meyer, who heads the University of Michigan's Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory, has tested this practice and says the results are clear: Constant nibbling from one task to another both slows and dumbs you down. It also is fatiguing and potentially harmful in terms of long-term health, and the cost of that split second you lose when you're talking on the phone and a traffic obstacle arises.
When we switch from one task to another and back again, our brain is pushing pause and play buttons, something that appears to make us unique, says neuroscientist Jordan Grafman. The frontal cortex acts as the main boss, assessing tasks, ranking importance and ordering what comes when.
Yet, what to do next isn't always its decision. Your boss wants something now, a co-worker barges into your cubicle, your kid's soccer game just got moved.
"We're stressing people out with multitasking demands over time," says Grafman of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Maryland.
And it will cause further decline in our health and performance, he says, if we keep it up. "The brain gets confused and looks for default mechanisms. It becomes hard to focus; we take shortcuts."
Looking for balance
In Levy's view, technology is not the culprit. The problem is the imbalance we've allowed it to perpetuate. His office offers a glimpse of his own balancing act. Computer, scanner and printer on one side, a bookshelf crammed with titles like "The Saturated Self" and "The Digital Dilemma" on the other.
Levy understands the ambitiousness of his plans to insert balance into the American imperative of productivity. The author of an evocative book, "Scrolling Forward," in which he examines how documents and information have morphed in the digital age, Levy meditates daily and, as a practicing Jew with a rabbi for a wife, honors the Sabbath, keeping unplugged one day a week.
Yet he is also an "e-mail junkie" and will rush back to his inbox, thinking he might find great news or something that needs urgent attention -- even though what often waits is spam.
"I take issue with the view that technology has a life of its own, that television came along, and bammo, you've got 'Survivor.' Technologies are constantly modified by human-interaction aspects of our nature. We're complex beings. To say the computer or Internet is good or bad is not helpful.
"I think it is safer to look at technologies as they are being incorporated into social use and communities. What are the economic and social questions here? Certainly more profit fits into this, and the ways technology is being sold, in the spirit of trying to go faster and faster."
Benefits and pitfalls
Indeed, complaining about technology itself can easily sound like whining. Your parents had to shop the hard way. They didn't have a search engine at their fingertips. They didn't have the flexibility that laptops and the like afford. They even had to use pay phones!
Technology helps connect us to friends and, on occasion, soul mates. It prevents phone tag. It sorts and recalls massive amounts of information, simplifies writing and even aids those who want to mellow out by working from the boonies.
Yet, some who study this modern phenomenon say the speed and ubiquity cause problems for those who are either psychologically ill-equipped or ill-trained to face dogged expectations that come with the package.
Some of us get obsessed, checking e-mails while on vacation or late at night. We will e-mail to avoid talking and expect prompt reply, or fire off text-messages or gab on cell phones not because we have something to say, but because we can. (What? Am I interrupting?)
We get lost browsing and sinking down one rabbit hole after another, dodging pop-ups and never quite focusing. Some of us hang around chat rooms trusting people who often are not what they seem, and "flaming" -- harshly criticizing -- people we will never meet.
This is such a topic of study that it has sprouted a number of terms, from "online compulsive disorder" to "data smog." Two Harvard professors see evidence of what they call "pseudo-attention deficit disorder" -- shorter attention spans influenced by technology and the constant waves of information washing over us. When the brain gets excited over some rapid data and is stimulated, it releases a "dopamine squirt," they say.
"We have so many options, reward centers that we never had before," says John Ratey, who teaches at Harvard and is a psychiatrist specializing in attention deficit disorder. "I think that's why we're seeing more of this. There are more demands on our attention and less training for us to stop and take it all in. We seem to be amazing ourselves to death."
This is of particular interest when it comes to children who have grown up in the fast lane where Web pages that take more than five seconds to load are considered lame.
Is the speed and ease compromising their attention spans? Their perspective? Their humanity? Even their work ethic? Or are we just threatened that they will lap us old fogies?
Little is understood about the Information Age's effect on this generation, but it is a burgeoning area of research. Ratey wonders if kids would read "The Red Badge of Courage" to complete their homework or simply comb the Internet for essays explaining it all for them.
If nothing else, thumbs -- the digit of choice for text-messaging -- will be the next carpal tunnel victim. Sixty-two percent of Americans between 18 and 27 have sent instant messages, and 46 percent of those say they IM more than e-mail, according to a survey by the Pew Internet & amp; American Life Project. The medium is so prevalent among youths in Japan that they are sometimes called "The Thumb Generation."