The Stanford Consensus
My technology habits are eccentric. I use an old fashioned, non-Internet connected Samsung flip phone with a postage-stamp size screen. I’m not on Facebook or Twitter, and my RSS reader is an emaciated husk, subsisting on a small number of feeds, mainly the blogs of friends. Long ago, I configured Gmail to automatically mark every message as read when it arrives in my inbox, frustrating my attempts to perform distracting quick scans for new messages during the day.
The rational foundation of my eccentricity is the increasingly alarming research coming out of Stanford’s Communication between Humans and Interactive Media (CHIMe) lab. Pioneering researchers from this lab are converging on a scary consensus. It’s long been understood that you’re less productive when you’re constantly switching your attention; that is, the claimed benefits of multitasking are false. Researchers at the CHIMe lab, however, have found that the impact of electronic multitasking goes beyond the momentary sense of distraction, it can also create permanent changes in the brain.
As reported in a recent New York Times article, subjects who were identified as multitaskers did “a significantly worse job” on experimental tasks that required them to filter out irrelevant information — even though they weren’t multitasking during the experiment.
“Other tests at Stanford,” reports the same article, “showed multitaskers tended to search for new information rather than accept a reward for putting older, more valuable information to work.”
Or, as Clifford Nass, a communications professor at Stanford, summarized: “the scary part for [multitaskers] is they can’t shut off their multitasking tendencies when they’re not multitasking.”
This is why I invest so much effort in isolating myself from electronic distraction. In my two fields, theoretical computer science and writing, the ability to focus on hard things for long uninterrupted periods is my most valuable currency. If I lose this ability, I might also lose my livelihood.
As the computer scientist Donald Knuth once said, “Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things.”
The Danger to Students
That’s the rational explanation for my behavior. If you want the emotional explanation, however, turn your (perhaps distracted) attention from Stanford’s CHIMe lab to my blog e-mail inbox.