Emailing Ourselves to Death

The NYT attacks the idea of time-slicing and multi-tasking and ubiquitous connectivity, arguing that always-on people (ahem) are junkies for the adrenaline rush of juggling a peak load, where one slip means disaster, like jet pilots or extreme sports afficianados, and that they (er, we) get less done as a result of our divided attention.

Well, I don't have anything other than my own experience to go on, and no empirical measurements of that, but I've been multitasking since I was a child, and I feel that I'm very, very productive. It's true that I have a panicky terror at the thought of being bored, but at the same time, I would argue that my five-things-at-once always-connected way of being is a successful adaptation, not a harmful addiction.

Neil Postman argues that due to telecommunications, our attention-spans have been debilitatingly foreshortened, and he convincingly illustrates this by comparing the reasoned and lengthy rhetoric of the Lincoln-Douglas debates with the soundbite-driven Reagan-Dukakis (?) debates.

The experts cited in this piece seem to be arguing the same thing, along the lines of, "That danged Internet is so slippery and fluid, it's taken away peoples' ability to watch television."

When do we stop lamenting a change like this and start looking for the value of the new trend? When do we start examining the upsides of fluid and multifarious attention, rather than popping off reactionary warnings about the dangers of being "addicted" to communications?

When do we get to consider the benefits of living with one foot in the Net and the other in meatspace?

Dr. Hallowell and John Ratey, an associate professor at Harvard and a psychiatrist with an expertise in attention deficit disorder, are among a growing number of physicians and sociologists who are assessing how technology affects attention span, creativity and focus. Though many people regard multitasking as a social annoyance, these two and others are asking whether it is counterproductive, and even addicting.

The pair have their own term for this condition: pseudo-attention deficit disorder. Its sufferers do not have actual A.D.D., but, influenced by technology and the pace of modern life, have developed shorter attention spans. They become frustrated with long-term projects, thrive on the stress of constant fixes of information, and physically crave the bursts of stimulation from checking e-mail or voice mail or answering the phone.

"It's like a dopamine squirt to be connected," said Dr. Ratey, who compares the sensations created by constantly being wired to those of narcotics — a hit of pleasure, stimulation and escape. "It takes the same pathway as our drugs of abuse and pleasure."

Link Discuss