Digital Opiate of the Masses

From a recent obituary:

Clifford Nass, a Stanford professor whose pioneering research into how humans interact with technology found that the increasingly screen-saturated, multitasking modern world was not nurturing the ability to concentrate, analyze or feel empathy, died on Saturday near Lake Tahoe.
Dr. Nass, who majored in math at Princeton but became a professor of communication at Stanford, spent more than 25 years studying people as they confronted the constantly changing technology of the computer age — how they responded to simulated voices in the 1990s (we trust male voices to give us driving directions); the titillation of 24-hour news networks and smartphone swiping (we are naturally weak for endless streams of blather, whether on a television news crawl or Twitter); and the anxiety of operating (or not) a self-driving vehicle in the fast-arriving future.

One of his most publicized research projects was a 2009 study on multitasking. He and his colleagues presumed that people who frequently juggle computer, phone or television screens, or just different applications, would display some special skill at ignoring irrelevant information, or efficiently switching between tasks, or that they would prove to have a particularly orderly memory.

“We all bet high multitaskers were going to be stars at something…We were absolutely shocked,” he said. “We all lost our bets. It turns out multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking. They’re terrible at ignoring irrelevant information; they’re terrible at keeping information in their head nicely and neatly organized; and they’re terrible at switching from one task to another.”

He added, “One would think that if people were bad at multitasking, they would stop. However, when we talk with the multitaskers, they seem to think they’re great at it and seem totally unfazed and totally able to do more and more and more.”

With children doing more multitasking and people asked to do more of it at work, he said, “We worry that it may be creating people who are unable to think well and clearly.”

Dr. Nass found that people who multitasked less frequently were actually better at it than those who did it frequently. He argued that heavy multitasking shortened attention spans and the ability to concentrate.

At Stanford, he was an adviser in a residential dorm and sometimes held “face to face” days there, requiring students to talk to one another without any technological device or interruption. Many found it difficult.

Dr. Nass, on the other hand, was at ease speaking to people in person and in explaining his academic work in compelling terms. His recent work asked whether increasing using of media and social media eroded social and emotional development. He argued that it did.

“The moral of this story here is really clear,” he said in a talk at Stanford this year. “We’ve got to make face-to-face time sacred, and we have to bring back the saying we used to hear all the time, and now never hear, ‘Look at me when I talk to you.’ ”

[Hat-tip to Yale Harlow, Los Angeles]

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1 comment to Digital Opiate of the Masses

  • Raymond

    I absolutely hate to multitask, but unfortunately, that is exactly what is required at my job, a significant portion of which deals with the public’s endless and impatient demands. My understanding is that, generally speaking, women are much better at men in having any mastery in this skill, which makes them better able to handle smaller children. Contrast all this with the stories told about Albert Einstein, who could be found standing in one place focusing on one aspect of astrophysics, only to be found 24 hours later, still in the same position, still thinking about that one highly theoretical issue.