Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Chaos to order

May I have your attention please! Please suspend your techno presence for a moment. Refrain from uploading, downloading, emailing, Skypeing or texting for a very important message.

We've become a society of attention-deficient multi-taskers. We consume "exabytes" (a unit of digital content) in many forms and we have endless information and amusement at our fingertips. Video games, Internet, music, apps, texts, movies, books, television, and youtube to name a few.

Some say this hyper-techno-connectivity is just a different kind of adaptive behavior; part of natural human evolution. Others say it's a crisis threatening the very foundation of our society. Here is my take on the controversy.

Price of distraction

Distraction is costing companies and families money. Business owners are paying employees for splintered attention and we are drugging children into submission. The annual price tags for productivity loss and ADD and ADHD drugs are both in the billions, according to studies.

There is also loss of life. Distracted drivers are making drunk drivers look good. Distracted health care workers are giving the wrong medications and, in some cases, lethal doses to patients. Some hospitals have made it mandatory that nurses giving medication wear an orange vest so people won't distract them.


Information overload can be balanced, we're told, if different information channels are used simultaneously: oral, visual, auditory... If too much information is being delivered into one channel, we overload. But if several channels are humming together, like listening to music while surfing the web, the experience can be intensely pleasurable. Like a shot of morphine.

By allowing down time to synthesize these information streams, we can find connections and insights, but many never pause to reflect.

Getting "stupider"

Our brains, while having the potential for unlimited capacity, can only process so much information in the short blink we are on the planet. It seems with our endless information streams, we are only grasping surface understanding of topics and are failing to understand how the world actually works. We are digging many shallow holes while drinking water from a fire hose.

When we overload ourselves, some studies say we dump information we learned in our early years, like lessons learned earning a girl scout patch.

Fighting for attention

The two forces of attention and distraction are dancing as distraction takes attention away from one thing, only to draw attention to another. We've developed a pattern of giving brief bursts of attention. Often times attention seekers want something from us.

The Internet, like a Las Vegas casino enticing disoriented people who can't find the exit, encourages people to stop and spend cash. This distraction can backfire, however. Just when a virtual cart is full of stuff, the shopper will get distracted, the spell will be broken and they will disappear.

Often it's people competing with technology for attention. Like when my husband and I are out to dinner and there is a tennis match playing on television behind him. I won't hear a word he's saying when Roger Federer is playing.

What about the children?

I've heard reports from a friend down south who says people are going into restaurants and setting up DVD players for the kids at the table. It seems the days of teaching kids how to behave at dinner and talking to them are going out the window.

Family vehicles are being sold as moving media vessels. A family on a road trip will each have different headsets, DVD players, iPods and iPhones to distract them from looking out the window or interacting. When I was little on road trips, we had conversations, I contemplated them, looked out the window, then came back with more questions. I learned silly songs, read books and heard family stories.

Now we seem very fragmented and fast moving. There is a lack of discernment in where we receive all our information. We're unable to figure out the source and determine the value.

Bringing order to chaos

Maybe the skillful management of attention is the key to happiness and fulfillment. If in between exabytes we allow space for self reflection, personal growth, understanding, compassion, charity work, and creativity we'll be better off. If we generously lift someone else up instead of being self absorbed in our technology pleasure. If we sit still and meditate, we might bring order to our fragmented pieces of thought and a whole picture will emerge. We can bring order to the chaos if we give it our attention.

•Courtney Nelson had over 1,000 interruptions while writing this piece, it's a miracle it was finished.

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