Infomania: Problem or Progress?
Do you feel creeping tendrils of always-on communications technology closing around your trachea, suffocating your intellect and insidiously rotting the walls of your mind? If you have problems functioning, focusing and concentrating at work, you can now blame e-mail and other "productivity tools" for making you stupid.
According to a recent British study, excessive day-to-day use of technology like cell phones, e-mail and instant messaging can be more distracting and harmful to your mental acuity than smoking marijuana.
The Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London conducted clinical trials with 80 volunteer office workers to measure how a constant flow of messages and information can affect a person's ability to focus on problem-solving tasks. Participants were asked to first work in a quiet environment and then while being inundated with email, instant messaging and phone calls. Although they were told not to respond to any messages, researchers found their subjects' attention was significantly disturbed.
Instead of boosting productivity, the constant data stream seriously reduced a person's ability to focus. The study said "an average worker's functioning IQ falls 10 points when distracted by ringing telephones and incoming e-mails ... more than double the four-point drop seen following [a 2002 Carleton University study] on the impact of smoking marijuana."
In the real world, people don't ignore all messages. They make continuous real-time decisions about where to focus their mind each moment they are plugged in. Between phones, e-mails, crackberries vibrating on hips, instant messaging and text messaging, the actual IQ drop for IT workers is likely more analogous to Einstein's brain becoming Elmo's.
There's too much data clamoring for conscious attention. It all wants to evolve into information and then knowledge. Like the kids lining up for Canadian Idol - as desperate for a sneer as for a smile, just longing for a moment where a judge acknowledges their humanity - there's too much damn data to get through. Just deciding what to ignore takes a surfeit of brain cycles and, inevitably, quality of work suffers.
Quality of life suffers, too.
As part of this study, researchers also conducted 1,100 telephone interviews where the results indicated that 62 percent of adults "are literally addicted to checking e-mail and text messages during meetings, in the evening and at weekends."
Half of workers will respond to an email immediately or within 60 minutes, and one in five people are "happy to interrupt a business or social meeting to respond to an e-mail or telephone message within 60 minutes."
The study warns of the "abuse of always-on technology" and calls this endemic condition "info-mania."
"If left unchecked, 'info-mania' will damage a worker's performance by reducing their mental sharpness," says Glenn Wilson, the lead psychiatric researcher behind the study, in a prepared statement. "This is a very real and widespread phenomenon."
Wilson went on to say that "companies should encourage a more balanced and appropriate way of working."
Accountability for info-maniacal tendencies, however, cannot solely be attributed to the companies some of us sweat, cry and bleed for. We are free-thinking human beings - even if just for short spurts of time now that the internet has given us all ADD - and we still have the physical capacity to unplug and go for a walk without our digital leashes (pending GPS implants with two-way radios).
Despite info-mania dumbing-down users of always-on communications technology, there are higher-level cognitive advantages to being so connected.
Linda Stone, a former VP of both Microsoft and Apple, coined the term "Continuous Partial Attention" to describe life in this era of constant distraction.
In an interview with INC magazine, Stone said that it is crucial to "[scan] incoming alerts for the one best thing to seize upon" and then ask yourself: "How can I tune-in in a way that helps me sync up with the most interesting, or important, opportunity?" It's an issue of timing, she says, and knowing when to intentionally "[break] free from continuous partial attention in order to get your bearings" and think a problem through before stepping forward with intention.
Stowe Boyd, president of blogging company Corante, agrees with Stone and criticizes the fundamentals of an info-mania 'problem' in his corporate blog. Boyd writes that society needs to "[shift] the measurement of productivity away from the individual - like 'IQ' tests - and [look] at the productivity of connected groups. Time in today's world is yet another shared space: your time is truly not your own."
You need to accept interruptions so others can make progress, says Stowe. "It's a form of social altruism," that benefits the collective to the detriment of an individual's productivity.
As such, info-mania's nature as a 'problem' is directly proportional to the innate levels of greed, ego and selfishness in our work environments.
While e-mail may make us obtuse, it might also be the fountainhead of human progress.