Technology is meant to serve us. Instead it increasingly runs us — and runs us down.
Where we put our focus shapes our agenda and defines our experience in every moment. More and more, we're turning over this precious resource to our digital technology, allowing it to define the depth and span of our attention, and to seduce us into operating at such high speeds that we don't notice the insidious toll that's taking.
I see it in myself, as I fight to stay focused on what's most important, and to resist the urgent, addictive, Pavlovian pull of my digital devices. At times, I feel like a lab rat, mindlessly pushing levers in search of the next source of instant but fleeting gratification. I see it, too, in my colleagues and our corporate clients, each of them struggling to manage what feels more and more like a tsunami — information coming at us in wave after wave, threatening to overwhelm everything else in our lives.
The Internet, and all it has come to include, is the most powerful interruption technology ever invented. It slices and dices our focus, fractures and distracts it, gives us less and less of more and more. It prompts us to skim, scan, and skip rather than immerse ourselves in any one thing.
As the Nobel Prize winning economist Herbert Simon put it so presciently, back in 1970, even before there was an Internet: "What information consumes is rather obvious. It consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention."
Cognitive load refers to the amount of information flowing into our working memory at any given time. We're able to hold onto only a very limited number of discrete bits of information in our working memory.
Overload this limited reservoir and you will struggle to focus, retain information, and make connections to other information stored in your long-term memory. Too much information literally dumbs us down. If you've been worrying lately about your memory — a complaint I hear nearly every day — it may well have nothing to do with the fact that you're getting older.
"It becomes harder to distinguish relevant information from irrelevant information," writes Nicholas Carr writes in his brilliant book The Shallows, "We become mindless consumers of data." The irony is that few people will read The Shallows because it is challenging, and deeply thoughtful, and requires a level of focus that fewer and fewer of us can muster.
Consider Joe Weisenthal, the lead financial blogger for the website Business Insider, and the subject of a New York Times profile last Sunday. Weisenthal, we learn, works 16 hours at a stretch, posts more than a dozen blogs a day, sends out dozens of tweets in between, and spends the rest of his time trolling the Internet for more information.
Weisenthal only manages to sleep 4 to 5 hours a night, which nearly guarantees that he's both sleep deprived and cognitively impaired when he's writing. No wonder we're told that what he posts is often misleading or flat out wrong. Given advances in artificial intelligence, a computer could likely do what Wiesenthal is doing with more accuracy, and certainly faster.
Here's the real point: the speed at which Weisenthal works and the volume he produces preclude his bringing to his work the sort of qualities that a computer could not.
What makes human beings unique is our capacity for reflection, and self-reflection, but also for creativity, conscience, empathy, and a higher purpose. Those are the qualities we ought to be cultivating.
Technology has no business setting our agenda, but it has turned into our dominatrix. Masochistically — but all too willingly — we submit to it. Emailing, texting and tweeting, searching Google, checking Facebook, and surfing websites not only consumes our time and energy, it also diminishes our capacity to pay attention to anything for very long — or to resist the next digital temptation.
I'm not a Luddite, and I appreciate the conveniences of digital technology as much as the next guy. I'm just suggesting that we need to become more far more conscious of its costs.
The antidote to a life online seems to me surprisingly simple. We must pay more attention to building a life offline, in which we seek depth, take time for reflection and define for ourselves what really matters, rather than letting a passel of promiscuous pings set our priorities.
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