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The truth behind multitasking and the disruptive power of digital distraction

By Larry Schmidt, Chief Technologist US Health & Life Sciences and HP Fellow, HP Enterprise Services


Is technology-driven multitasking dumbing us down? Here’s the news that every parent of a teenager has probably suspected and every hard-working nine-to-fiver plus has dreaded. With the explosion of information available 24/7, some experts say analytical reasoning and sound decision-making could be jeopardized.vertical office.jpg


Anecdotal evidence from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and studies from Stanford University suggest as much. Today’s students—continuously engaged with multiple screens—are not as intellectually adept as they were even a decade ago. Professors confess they no longer assign books longer than 200 pages because students refuse to read them.


Think of your own experiences. You work on a networked computer. You write or analyze information for a project or strategic initiative. Perhaps you’re trying to make a difficult point or attempting to solve a challenging problem. It’s hard.


So you check your email or glance at a fresh blog post. You grab your cell phone after it beeps with a text message or peek at a tweet. You find yourself doing every little digital thing to break up the difficult task. You lose focus. Your effectiveness most likely suffers. Who hasn’t been there?


Multiple devices, many distractions

In Frontline’s Digital Nation documentary, MIT Associate Professor David Jones says his students have difficulty absorbing information from his lectures and assigned readings. On an exam narrowly covering class materials, his laptop-armed and smart phone-loaded students generated a mean score of just 75. He blames students’ declining intellectual prowess on incessant tech tool distraction.


Because technology makes interaction and problem solving easy, we reflexively think of it as good. So says Sherry Turkle, psychologist and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. Digital technology engenders a new kind of thinking—an expansion of our ability to reason and cycle through complicated problems.


But recent research suggests that when students continuously interact with multiple digital devices, virtually everything they do suffers. Clifford I. Nass, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, says heavy multitaskers are often extremely confident in their processing abilities.  


Yet in a study he published in 2009, he found that multitaskers performed much worse at tasks involving cognitive processes and memory than did those who focused on single tasks. Multitaskers processed information at slower rates, and exhibited disorganized memories and ineffective analytical reasoning capabilities.


Writing is affected, too

Nass says technology has even transformed the way students write. Instead of writing in essay form with a central idea carried logically through to conclusion, they write in disjointed paragraphs. New paragraphs mark the points of distraction.


So, not to add to your list of things to ponder, but you’ve got to wonder: Will our digital age create a cadre of professionals incapable of thinking clearly and processing information effectively? At what point does the increasing use of technology generate diminishing returns? Have we breached that point?


Progress vs. problem solving?

Progress always demands losses with its offered gains. The Homeric singers of ancient Greece could produce thousands of lines of poetry from memory. With the advent of writing and the printing press, this skill of massive memorization was gradually lost. The ability to be contemplative and to pay avid attention for long periods may very well be casualties of the digital age.


These insights lead to a bigger question—how do we embrace the best of technology without sacrificing creativity and thought leadership that requires contemplative thinking? These are the issues that Innovation INSIGHT examines each month. For an inside look at emerging innovations, check out the replay of the HP Labs’ Big Bets for the Future webcast.

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