Disruptive Technologies

So, here I sit Watching 60 minutes and after a piece on the impending demise of GM and a bit with Osama's old bodyguard there was a feature about Americans working over 60 hours a week. Some of the people were working 80 hours end were actually happy about it. One couple's daughter's favorite Toy is a Blackberry!

So, where did we go from there? An ad from hallmark showing a group of Children clustered around a singing rabbit toy and ignoring the father figure who is trying to draw them into an Easter egg hunt.

This is clearly a related phenomenon. It's doubtful hallmark would be so careless as to produce such a commercial if some focus group full of children hadn't reacted in precisely this way - and the aforementioned child's addiction to mom and dad's "crackberry" (a word actually used in the interview) definitely lends credence to this theory.

Where did all this start? Is it too simplistic to blame it on television? Maybe we could go back to radio... Or perhaps we could just go right to the actual problem - a lack of commitment to good parenting.

I'm not just talking about providing for children, or doing one's ''best'' to instill what passes for positive values today into them, whatever that means. I'm talking about showing them how to behave every day.

Let me tell you a small story about my father. Like my mother, he was a smoker long before I was born. Also like my mother, he always told me not to smoke. Unlike my mother, he never stopped and continues to smoke to this day. As you Might imagine, where I'm going with this is that today. I too am a smoker. It would be pretty juvenile to blame my smoking on my father but its clear that he didn't do me any favors with his own actions.

Hypocrisy isn't the only thing that I'd like to point to when it comes to what we've done to our future, although it is essentially what all of this behavior stems from. We expect our children to pay attention to us end do as we say, but we're not willing (at least in general) to treat our children with the same level of respect that we ourselves expect. Obviously there will always be inequity involved in the relationship, but the simple fact is that expecting your children to behave in a manner that you yourself will not is simply hypocritical.

Just as serious is the interruptive nature of basically every ubiquitous technology that children are obsessed with. Kids are more and more likely to have (and heavily use) cellular telephones - their every function is disruptive. This article is itself an experiment in distraction - I am writing it on my PDA while watching television. I think the poor quality speaks for itself.

I am something of an unapologetic technologist on a day-to-day basis, but I have come around to the idea that trying to do nine things at once means that none of them will be done well. When you are trying to email, IM, and talk on the phone you are doing none of these things properly, just as trying to write and watch means my full attention is given to neither. To make an automotive analogy, lifted straight out of the Gran Turismo handbook, your tires can provide (at best) 100% traction. If you are using 50% of it for braking, then only 50% remains for steering.

The problem is even more serious because humans (and presumably, other carbon-based life forms) are not capable of switching between tasks instantly. Although the two are not at all identical, computer processors also have a similar problem. Computers today appear to carry out multiple tasks by switching between them very rapidly. When they switch between them they must record their current "state of mind" and load in the state corresponding to the task they are switching to. This is known as a context switch and it can consume as much as three percent of available processing power. We, of course, are not computers. There is no fixed cost to switching tasks. Still, there is certainly a cost, measurable or not. How many times have you been interrupted and found yourself saying, "Now, what was I doing again?" On top of the time it takes just to remember where you were, it's important to remember that unlike common computers, we are inherently analog. Absolutely nothing about us is digital. It takes time to reach a point where you are truly focused on your task. Each interruption therefore has a significant cost to productivity.

Now, it is true that people have been interrupting each other probably about as long as there have been people, but what new technologies have brought is a whole new set of ways to do this more easily. There was a time not long ago when contacting someone in the next town was an all-day proposition. Without telephones or automobiles it was necessary to walk or enlist animal aid in transportation. Today we have only to push a few buttons and we can annoy someone just seconds later.

This naturally translates into a dramatic increase in the number of interruptions the average person experiences during the course of the day. Whether at work or home, we seldom manage to devote our full attention to anything unless it's watching television - which is a separate rant, or maybe a different part of this one.

As our attention becomes more fragmentary and thus ultimately lacking, we can only be teaching children to behave the same way. Expecting them to focus in class, for example, is utterly unrealistic when we continually teach them to divide their attention between multiple tasks in the only way anyone ever really believes in - by showing them.