When Technology Oversteps Its Boundaries
In a psychology experiment, researchers showed their subjects a one-minute movie in which six people move around a room while passing basketballs back and forth in teams of three. Subjects were instructed simply to count the number of passes made by one team. But while concentrating on their counting, nearly half of viewers completely failed to notice a woman in a gorilla suit who walks through the group, briefly pausing to pound on her chest. In all, she is on screen for nine seconds—an eternity in attention research. Repeated many times over, the experiment demonstrates the concept of “inattentional blindness,” or missing something fully visible because one fails to attend to it. For author Maggie Jackson, it serves as a reminder of the many important details in life that are overlooked because technology-addicted, overloaded multitaskers divert their attention incessantly to electronic devices.1
Indeed, the world is filled with multitaskers poking on laptops and iPhones as they sit in meetings, talk on the phone, spend time with family, and even drive. According to one study, working parents spend a quarter of their waking hours multitasking.2 And when working on a project, the average employee changes tasks every three minutes, switching for example between emails, Web surfing, and phone calls.3
Of course, multitasking with the latest technology is not necessarily evil. Modern life often demands it, and interruptions can offer a needed break. Still, this culture of distraction can erode the ability to focus deeply on important subjects. As author Nicholas Carr argued, the technology one employs actually shapes thought processes in addition to supplying information. For example, Bruce Friedman, a medical school professor at the University of Michigan, said the habit of scanning short passages of text from online sources has rendered him unable to read long articles or books. “I’ve lost the ability to do that,” he said. “Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it.”4
Blogger Scott Karp confessed that he has stopped reading books too and speculated on the reason: “What if I do all my reading on the web not so much because the way I read has changed, i.e. I’m just seeking convenience, but because the way I THINK has changed?”5 The New York Times capitulated to the modus operandi of distracted skimming by devoting pages 2-3 of every section to article abstracts for readers who do not feel that they have time to flip through all the pages.6
Even among technology’s strongest advocates, some are beginning to see multitasking’s effects on focused thinking. For instance, Norbert Elliot, a professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, stopped lecturing and instead required students to listen to podcasts of his lectures before class. But because students did other tasks while listening, few learned the material well. “I have sort of sold them a questionable bill of goods about how easy this technology is to use,” he confessed.7
In an effort to curb the shallowness of distracted thinking, some have proposed technology fasts. Colorado resident Kim Bradica, for one, gave up text messaging for Lent in order to improve her relationships with friends and work associates.8 Carole Conley was receiving upwards of 30 Blackberry alerts each day from Facebook, so she fasted from online social networks to make time for spiritual disciplines.9 And Edward Sri, provost of a Catholic graduate school, asks students to give up as many forms of media as they can each Lenten season. He says many have thanked him years later, saying the fast improved their relationships with God and family.10Such fasting falls squarely within the tradition of the Savior who often withdrew to quiet places to pray, for He knew that busyness and multitasking must have their limits. And surely the psalmist would agree that occasionally putting down the Blackberry and stepping away from the laptop is implicit in the instruction to “be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10; emphasis added).
Maggie Jackson, Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2008), 137-138.
Nicholas Carr, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The Atlantic Website, July/August 2008, http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200807/google (accessed March 2, 2010).
Anna Maria Basquez, “Young People Temper Use of Technology for Lenten Fast,” Archdiocese of Denver Website, March 11, 2009, http://www.archden.org/index.cfm/ID/1659/Young-people-temper-use-of-technology-for-Lenten-fast/ (accessed March 2, 2010).