Ok, one article can be explained away. Three and counting gives me pause. Wired Magazine has apparently taken to arguing that the overwhelming evidence that multi-tasking and the increasing demands on our ever-more-fractured attention is really…well, no big deal. At first I thought it might be an attempt to balance the few, somewhat extreme views that can be a bit alarmist. But in this latest Wired article, the author calls credible, well-documented scientists and researchers “dystopian-minded.” I was so surprised, I had to look that up to make sure it meant what I thought it meant. It did. Dystopia, according to Merriam-Webster Online: “an imaginary place where people lead dehumanized and often fearful lives.” Going a little far, don’t you think, Mr. Chen?
Brian X. Chen’s article on Wired today misses the point. He claims that “there is little hard evidence that 24/7 access to information is bad for you.” It’s not that access is bad. It’s the fact that the information (more than has been created in all of civilization before this century, according to one author) is no longer passive. Advancing technology has created an environment where there is always a screen in front of us, and that screen is constantly demanding our attention in some way, whether it’s with sound, or movement, or color (who doesn’t long for the days of the internet before pop-ups?)
The Problem is Partly Our Fault
Now, I’m certainly not going to argue that we are simply helpless humans who are at the mercy of the big bad technology. As a society, we are guilty of creating personal environments for ourselves that sabotage our own focus and attention. We create addictions to the constant flow of information, and easily become bored without constant stimulus. We can exert way more control over our environments than we do, and it’s true that some people’s difficulties are self-induced. Acknowledged.
But to claim in multiple articles with different authors, that this new technology, this digital convergence, this revolutionary change in the ways we communicate and form relationships, simply isn’t posing challenges to the vast majority of individuals…I can only assume that the intent is to be purposely contrarian, or perhaps to ensure continued demand for Wired content? In just this one article, Mr. Chen’s logic is seriously flawed as he claims that since the one study he mentions is disputed, mainly due to its small sample size, clearly his conclusion (which even he can’t seem to support well) must be true. As additional “support,” he then points to a different study with an even smaller sample size showing that a minuscule amount of people are actually good at “supertasking.” But then he goes on to cite study after study that disagree with his supposition. This conflict is not addressed.
And this is just the latest in what seems to be becoming a theme at Wired. The last one I remember is “How Twitter and FaceBook Make Us More Productive,” purporting that social media tools simply provide for a needed break in our concentration throughout the day in order to keep our creativity flowing. I don’t disagree with the assertions that “exposing the mind to entirely novel information” is helpful, nor do I disagree that social media has value. However, the author, Brendan Koerner, suggests that social media and online gaming is simply something stimulating for us to do in all the downtime that we enjoy in our lives every day, and we should really “force” ourselves to step away from the work at hand once in a while. Seriously, who has this problem? How many people do you know who complain that they are just too darn focused, and couldn’t someone just interrupt them once in a while? Do you know anyone looking for distraction?
I also noted “Think You’re Good at Driving While on Your Cellphone? You May Be Right,” by Bruce Bower. This headline, despite opening the article with, “Cellphone users frequently drive themselves to distraction while operating cars, and all too often end up in traffic accidents.” Huh?
Maybe Mr. Chen, Mr. Koerner, and Mr. Bower just lead simple and uncomplicated lives. Or maybe they have figured out some secret to a Zen lifestyle that they don’t want to share. But I speak with people about these issues every day. And it’s very rare that I come across someone who isn’t struggling to keep up. I’ve based my business on helping people deal with it. Because of this, one might argue that I am guilty of the same bias I’m suggesting might be at play at Wired. But I’ve been in this line of work since the early days of email, and the days of paper-based planners. There has always been, and I suspect there always will be, a large population of people looking to be more efficient, to wring more time from their day, to get more done in less time. But because I’ve been in this industry so long, I can state with complete certainty that it IS getting worse. There are more demands on our attention, there is more to keep up with, and it’s harder to manage than ever before. And because more information is being created than ever before, it’s value has decreased, as Davenport and Beck so aptly describe in The Attention Economy (published, by the way, in 2002. Is there really a compelling argument to be made that things have gotten easier?) The growing creation and access to information means that its value has decreased and what’s more important now is attention. It’s why marketers work so hard at stealing it from us.
So, Wired, if your intent with these “technology doesn’t cause any problems”-themed articles is to provoke a response, I suppose you have done your job well. But if your intent is to provide useful, well-documented information that your readers can use, I think in the case of this theme, you’ve fallen short. And I’ve got reams of research to prove it. Here is just a sample.
If any readers disagree with me, and you feel like you breeze through your days getting everything accomplished, like distraction isn’t a problem for you, like you don’t have to work HARD to just keep up with your email, then I would love to hear from you. Because of my line of work, I might be better at it than most, but I would never say it’s easy. I’m sure people like that exist, but I’m also certain that they are in the minority, and that average professionals, with families and lives, need all the help they can get.
Thanks for reading.