This week I've facilitated two different (public) organization design training programs. (CIPD and HR Society). Both times in the 'housekeeping' start-up to the program I've made the BlackBerry call as I don't like facilitating a program with people furiously working their BlackBerries on their knees. I give participants a choice. We can stop once an hour for a five minute BlackBerry break so they can feed their addiction, or we can stop at the scheduled breaks (about every two hours).
So I was interested to read Matt Richtel's article in the NY Times Hooked on Gadgets, and Paying a Mental Price. The article discusses the effects of constantly multi-tasking the information that comes to us in an endless stream on our various gadgets:
Scientists say juggling e-mail, phone calls and other incoming information can change how people think and behave. They say our ability to focus is being undermined by bursts of information.
While many people say multitasking makes them more productive, research shows otherwise. Heavy multitaskers actually have more trouble focusing and shutting out irrelevant information, scientists say, and they experience more stress.
And scientists are discovering that even after the multitasking ends, fractured thinking and lack of focus persist. In other words, this is also your brain off computers.
The article references the research of Dr Adam Gazzaley of the Gazzaley Lab. It is a "cognitive neuroscience research lab at the University of California, San Francisco focused on studying the neural mechanisms of memory and attention, how these processes change with normal aging and dementia, and how we might intervene therapeutically to alleviate memory and attention deficits."
Specifically the research is focused on
the neural process known as top-down modulation, which underlies our ability to exert conscious control over how we perceive our environment. It is this ability to selectively focus our attention, suppress distracting input and hold relevant information in mind that defines our conscious experience and serves as a critical crossroad between attention and memory.
The articles I skimmed confirm the NY Times report that multi-tasking appears to have a damaging effect on brain functioning.
The NY Times article has a link to a game that tests how well you filter out interruptions. (Perversely when I took this test I was much better at filtering out information when more was coming at me than when less was coming at me! Scoring 92% with six interferences – better than most. But only 83% with two interferences – slightly worse than most).
The game was devised by Eyal Ophir of Stanford University's Chime Lab (Communication Between Humans and Interactive Media) Lab. This lab researches the
fundamental relationships between humans and interactive media. We are interested both in advancing the overall understanding of human psychology and in exploring the practical implications of our discoveries.
I got distracted looking through the publications on their website by an article The Role of Psychological Ownership and Ownership Markers in Collaborative Working Environment which notes that
Though the theoretical and empirical literatures suggest that humans develop feelings of ownership toward non-physical entities such as ideas, words, artistic creations , so far, ownership of digital entities (digital ownership) has not been thoroughly studied within the context of Computer Supported Cooperative Work  Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), or machine-supported Human-Human communication.
I'd never considered the topic of digital ownership, though now I'm wondering what implications it might have for organization design. But to return to the BlackBerry/gadget discussion. The NY Times has another article on the topic An Ugly Toll of Technology: Impatience and Forgetfulness this one by Tara Parker-Pope. Again Stanford researchers are quoted
"More and more, life is resembling the chat room," says Dr. Elias Aboujaoude, director of the Impulse Control Disorders Clinic at Stanford. "We're paying a price in terms of our cognitive life because of this virtual lifestyle."
Parker-Pope offers another test – this one of gadget addiction. Answer these seven questions:
- Do you always check your e-mail before doing other things?
- Do you frequently find yourself anticipating the next time you'll be online?
- When you're online and someone needs you, do you usually say "just a few more minutes" before stopping?
- Have you ever lied about or tried to hide how long you've been online?
- Have you ever chosen to spend time online rather than going out with others?
- Does going online lift you from a depressed or nervous mood?
- Do others in your life often complain about the amount of time you spend using technology?
If you answered "often" or "always," technology may be taking a toll on you.
Help is at hand at netaddiction.com:
Founded in 1995, the Center for Internet Addiction Recovery has been devoted to helping those who suffer from Internet addiction. The Internet has impacted the world and provided many benefits to its users. At the same time the Internet has had negative ramifications. Some people are preoccupied with using the Internet, are unable to control their use, and are jeopardizing employment and relationships. The concept of "Internet addiction" has been proposed as an explanation for this uncontrollable, damaging use of this technology. Symptoms are compared to the criteria used to diagnose other addictions and research has characterized Internet addiction as an impulse control disorder most comparable to pathological gambling because of overlapping criteria.
In future training courses, as well as agreeing gadget breaks I may well point people in the direction of some of the research on the consequences of addiction, and for severe cases the net addict website.