You say you’re worried about the impact of digital technology pauses to check email on our ability to focus?

Someone probably showed you a study, or ten, claiming that we’re addicted to oh look my twitter post is trending. Awesome! social media. Yeah, I’ve heard the same. Hey, remember that Goldfish meme that blew up on Instagram a couple of years ago.  Let me see if I can find it.

Seconds pass, then minutes.

Must be lost in the pixelverse, but I’m sure you saw it. It was the one that compared our attention span to that of a goldfish, and we lost. I wonder how they measured a goldfish’s attention span? What do goldfish even think about? I should Google that.

OK, I’ll get to the point. There is a growing body of research, some studies better than others, that suggests our use of digital technology is impacting our ability to focus on a single task for any length of time. Wow, that was a long, extremely focused statement. I think I need to take a quick break and check my text. Nothing?! I wonder if the Internet’s broken?

Yes, digital distraction is real and spreading. I recently experienced it IRL at the Summit for Social Good. The daylong conference featured an unending parade of expert panels. Each group had about 15 minutes to explain their particular passion for making the world a better place. These were not exactly flash fiction topics, but the speakers did their best to cover vast subjects in the allotted time.  When one group finished their conversation, the next followed immediately.

For the first hour or so the audience in the packed theatre sat quietly, but when it became evident that the stream of presentations was going to be non-ending, they began to change their behavior. Before long the flow of people in and out of seats mirrored the parade across the stage. The day fell into a steady rhythm.

A group finishes speaking.

Audience applauds.

About a third of the audience suddenly jump from their seats and rushes for the exits.

Next group of speakers comes onstage.

New audience members flood in, searching for empty seats.

Speakers begin their presentation as new audience members climb over those already seated.

Cycle repeats.

When those people were in the seats most were busy on one or more screens, jumping between their digital lives and the activities happening right in front of them.

At one point in the day, a young woman was sitting next to me, laptop out, checking email and simultaneously taking notes. As one group of speakers was being herded offstage, she turned to me and said; “I’ve never been to a conference like this before.” After a pause, she continued, “I kinda like this format.” With that, she returned to her screen as the next group of speakers took the stage.

So yeah, if you’re looking for evidence that our digital devices are disrupting our ability to pay attention, there is plenty to support your argument. BUT, and this is a big but, that evidence does not necessarily prove that this new distracted multi-tasking is bad.

Without a doubt, it makes it difficult to achieve the levels of deep focus that were the hallmark of expertise in the industrial age.  The thing is, we don’t live in the industrial age anymore. We are becoming digital natives. Being digital means learning a whole new way of communicating and thinking.

Marshall McLuhan was a prolific media theorist in the 1960s, whose pithy and obtuse quotes seem made for social media. One of the most popular of those memes goes like this; “First we build the tools, then they build us.” Even though Mr. McLuhan was writing BI, he accurated describing what digital technology is doing to us today.

Let’s take a deep breath and see if we can go beyond the meme level analysis and unpack what is really going on. First, I need to check what’s trending on twitter. Back in a flash.

 

In the early nineties, professors Mark Taylor and Esa Saarinen set out to explore the new media space being formed on the world wide web. They named this space the mediatrix and argued that it would replace the print age with a new nonlinear, image dominated form of communication that would transform the very nature of knowledge and knowing.

They concluded that, “In the future knowledge will be oceans wide and inches deep.” Feel free to pause and share this most tweetable moment.

In this world, one needs the ability to skim across vast swaths of information and to hop from one island of interaction to another.  Successful digital natives create connections and possess the capacity to tap the relevant ones in rapidly accelerating real time. That is why our digital age favors short attention spans, mental agility and reaction speed over the slow in-depth approach of an era that privileged focused subject matter expertise.

I know, I know this is heretical to all those, especially academics, who fear the loss of privilege that goes with expertise. Surely, we need to maintain deep knowledge? How can we have a complex society without expertise? Who will build our bridges, teach our children and cure our diseases if we have no experts?

The answer to this question seems obvious to me, even without checking Wikipedia. The machines will take over these tasks. Computers are built to drill down deep and uncover patterns hidden in the zettabytes of data that our digital age produces.  Already IBM’s Watson has proven it can diagnose diseases faster and more accurately than the best doctors while managing massive city infrastructures in a nano-blink of the eye.  This is only the beginning. As we master artificial intelligence, we will see our devices gain even greater subject matter knowledge and deep expertise. Soon, there will be no topic that a computer doesn’t “know” as much about as the most seasoned human expert.

We have been told, by those same people that proclaim digital technology is ruining our kids, that these smart machines are an existential threat to humanity. They are convinced that somehow the machines will learn too much and decide we are dispensable. This Frankenstein inspired view of AI reflects a real lack of faith in the human capacity to adapt and evolve.

Partnering with AI will radically expand our capacities to solve problems, create innovations and generally improve the lot of all humanity and even the planet. This new form of knowledge partnership will allow the machines to do what they do best- go deep and make decisions based on enormous amounts of data. It will also free humans to do what we do best – imagine and innovate in areas where the data is still sketchy.

Breaking new ground requires creativity. Exposure to wide and varied stimuli is what spurs creativity. Just the sort of exposure one gets as a multi-tasking, finger swiping, social media junkie.

So, next time you see a group of kids huddled over their screens, scrolling from one image to the next faster than you can absorb the information, don’t worry. They’re just learning how to surf the vast ocean of knowledge on their way to unleashing the next iteration of human evolution.