I've heard it said that in one edition of the New York Times is contained more information than the average dark ages person learned in their entire lifetime. Think about that for a minute and your realize just how many pieces of information we are exposed to and, therefore, forced -- simply by that exposure -- to process. Short of closing our eyes and putting in ear plugs it's not within our voluntary ability to shut out information. It has to be analyzed in some way or other the moment we are exposed to it. It couldn't be any other way. As a species we never would have survived without this innate ability.
But, back when we were hunter-gatherers it was easy to filter a few moments during the day and apply a "danger"/"not danger" label to them and move on. Today, a tiger jumping out of the bushes to eat you is a pretty remote threat and, yet, we still are pre-programmed for "danger"/"not danger" responses to most sensory inputs. We pay attention to everything, all the time. Fight or flight.
The short answer to any of these questions is, "Yes". It is immensely helpful to be able to check on something while you are on the move. Think about all the gas cell phones have saved. I know I've heard literally hundreds of conversations at the grocery about what to get thus saving yet another trip to the store. How about finding your friends on a Saturday night, or changing plans at the last minute, etc.
I've also heard of a young man who was crossing some railroad tracks with his iPod on while he was busy texting and ... well, let's just say it didn't end well. What about all the legislation these days about people texting and driving? This hasn't come about because this type of activity improves your performance behind the wheel. (I've personally witnessed on more than one occasion people actually reading a book while driving on the highway! How dumb is that? Can anyone say "Darwin Award"?)
Ever since getting a laptop from work, for example, and wifi-enabling my house it's been great not to be tied to a desk all day. (Alright ... fine, I admit it, I'm a Luddite: I just got a laptop last year and my cell phone cost $12 because it was cheaper to buy a new than replace the battery in the old one but, hey, I get by). The funny thing is though, I still spend most of the day in my basement office away from the family (I work from home, obviously). And this brings me back around to my initial point: I had to move into the basement to get away from the ever-increasing distractions in the world of windows and sunshine (sigh).
The other thing that I got from work, however, was an IM account. It was that event (one I actively dodged for as long as I could) that led me to write this column. I've never been a fan of IM. It bugs me. I hate working on something that requires a lot of focus only to have someone digitally tapping on my shoulder. You know when you see that little "reminder" or hear the little beep that someone is waiting with anticipation and probably getting a little miffed if you don't answer right away. Also, even though I am a Luddite, I am infinitely available. I have three active phone numbers, two active email accounts, and I work from home! I'm a pretty easy guy to get a hold of. So why do I need IM? But that's not the point. The point is it's just one more distraction that I don't think aids my ability to be productive or create value.
I don't fly that much but when I do I spend a lot of time people watching. At any given time, a third to a half (and this number is increasing all the time) of the people I see are on their phones or texting or surfing the Web or whatever. Granted, this is to be expected when someone is in a transitory state but, if you are forever transitioning from one interface to another, you are always in a transitory state. This means you are not really thinking about anything to any great degree or with much clarity -- even though you may think you are. Maybe this is why Twitter caught on so fast? Bliss is 140 characters.
Maybe this also why I'm noticing a lot more of us are just heads-down, tunnel-focused on our own little slice of the world. Maybe were not paying a bit of attention to what's going on around us because there is too much going on. Once again, hardly a new revelation. But, with the technologies we have in place to exacerbate this problem (or maybe they're in place because of this phenomenon) it is becoming harder and harder to do anything that requires more than a few minutes of focus.
We are not there yet, but this does not bode well for intelligent decision making down the road. This is because raw information is next to useless. You need context for understanding and context requires reflection and reflection requires time without interruption.
I recently saw a documentary on the brain and one segment involved multitasking. Some researchers brought in a bunch of kids from Ivy League schools who felt there were experts at multitasking. They thought they were far more productive because of their "ability" to do a bunch of things at once. What was discovered, however, is these kids performed worse on a series of tests than the people who eschewed multitasking in favor of more focused activities. This is hardly irrefutable proof that multi-tasking is bad but it does raise an eyebrow. These kids really thought they were being productive when, in fact, they were just being busy.
As smart phones and "apps" continue to proliferate and trends like social networking and always-on continue to dominate the culture, we are in danger of losing the ability to focus, to solve problems that don't lend themselves to a Google search. In its place, we will just continue to get busier; offering up the illusion of productivity and value. This is a poor substitution for considered analysis and a likely result of a lot of deep thinking that went on in the 1990s about what people want and how to give it to them. How ironic.
Allen Bernard is managing editor of CIOUpdate.com, ITSMWatch.com, and Projectmanagerplanet.com. He has been covering the covergence of technology and business since 1998. Feel free to email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter (yes, I said it) @cioupdate.