In today's Wall Street Journal, Christine Rosen has a great review of Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think?, edited by John Brockman. Article link here. She cleverly titled the article Pay Attention, Please with the equally provocative subtitle: The New Darwinian imperative may be 'survival of the focused.'
Thomas Metzinger, a philosopher, argues that the Internet isn't changing the way we think; it is exacerbating the deceptively simple challenge of "attention management." "Attention is a finite commodity, and it is absolutely essential to living a good life," he argues. The way we use the Internet today represents "not only an organized attack on the space of consciousness per se but also a mild form of depersonalization. . . . I call it public dreaming."
These are not the laments of technophobes. MIT professor Rodney Brooks, an expert on robotics, worries that the Internet "is stealing our attention. It competes for it with everything else we do." Neuroscientist Brian Knutson imagines a near future in which "the Internet may impose a 'survival of the focused,' in which individuals gifted with some natural ability to stay on target, or who are hopped up enough stimulants, forge ahead while the rest of us flail helpless in a Web-based attentional vortex."
As the parent of 4 young kids, this is something I worry about a lot. My children have already developed a concerning attachment to all the electronic devices (imitating their parents unfortunately) that bring staccato bursts of entertainment, news and connection with friends. I worry they won't be able to function without constant stimulation, including not being able to finish homework and tests in school. The irony is that they're getting very bad at something I hoped they would never excel at: Do absolutely nothing. But now I'm not so sure it isn't a good idea. These themes were explored in a New York Times article from June called Attached to Computers and Paying a Price (link here: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/07/technology/07brain.html).
The key takeaway:
Scientists say juggling e-mail, phone calls and other incoming information can change how people think and behave. They say our ability to focus is being undermined by bursts of information.
These play to a primitive impulse to respond to immediate opportunities and threats. The stimulation provokes excitement — a dopamine squirt — that researchers say can be addictive. In its absence, people feel bored.
Unfortunately, thinking about my own behavior in the middle of a boring meeting, I will often reach for a dopamine squirt via my T-Mobile Slide. Once it starts it's hard to stop. Same thing during dinner, while on a conference call, pretty much any time. You can always tell when someone you're talking with on the phone is doing it too. There are the long pauses and generic answers to questions. The scientists sited in these articles seem to suggest that previously we weren't tuning out as much, but is that really so? I can only assume that before we all had these devices we were either better listeners or more accomplished stealth daydreamers, because there's no way everyone was staying focused the whole time or regularly checking out without anyone noticing.
I argued in Built for Change that the best companies are very good at what I call being Proactively Inactive. In other words: intentionally shutting off in order to plan, assimilate information and clear the mental clutter. They do this on an organizational level; it's structured, scheduled and enforced by the group with social pressure ("If I'm shutting off my Blackberry, you should too."). But if the scientists are to be believed, those who never forget or who are able to (re)learn how to disconnect as individuals will have the greatest success.