After a weekend of articles attacking the excesses of technology and implicit urgings that it should be abandoned, Monday brought a bit more sanity to the discussion. The New York Times, on Monday, ran a new edition of its “Room for Debate” series, “First Steps to Digital Detox,” in which —in this case — a group of academics and authors (including, btw, Nicholas Carr, who wrote the article in the Wall Street Journal cited in Monday’s blog post)—answer questions about strategies for unplugging and whether multitasking can go too far.
And, in this forum, the discussion becomes a bit more nuanced, in most cases. Suggestions tend toward controlling one’s use of the tools, not throwing the tools out or damning them as inherently damaging, but necessary evils.
In this debate, Carr’s advice is threefold: turn off devices from time to time; check email less often; spend time each day in pursuits like reading, engaging in a hobby, or conversation.
Gary W. Small, professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA (please see full credentials for Small and others in the article), recommends making an effort to focus on one task at a time and take regular breaks.
Steven Yantis, professor of psychological and brain sciences at Johns Hopkins, differentiates between true multitasking and switching, which is what is really occurring in most cases, and discusses the meaning of “switch cost,” the cognitive price we pay for changing our focus.
Russell A. Poldrack, professor of psychology and neurobiology at UT, Austin, points out that people often are mistaken in assessing their own multitasking abilities, and recommends practices such as yoga and meditation to improve focus.
Timothy B. Lee, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, points out that lamenting the effects of new technology is neither new nor as insidious as the Richtel article suggested. He points out the increased ability to stay in touch with his spouse when they are separated, nurture long-distance friendships, and making new friends, and concludes that time spent on line is not always damaging to family life and may, in fact, be more important in some moments than the work of the moment on the desk in front of us.
Clifford Nass, professor of communications and cognitive science at Stanford, urges making a distinction between multitasking to seek new, interesting information or to avoid current, boring tasks, in which case, he suggests a real world break of walking or stretching and then getting on with it.
FInally, Gloria Mark, professor of informatics and UC, Irvine, points out that surfing websites, Facebook, and Twitter provides rewards at random intervals, and this kind of reinforcement is, she says, the most difficult to turn away from. She also points out that workplaces are often set up with an expectation of multitasking—whether to answer one’s coworker’s question, and the client call, etc., and when the need to check email, IMs, and phone calls is required to keep up with one’s jobs requirements, it may be quite difficult to step away.
But these are just summaries, and I encourage you to read the whole debate to get a better feel for what’s involved in the topic.