The recent, seemingly inexhaustible and rapidly accelarating
development of ubiquitous technology and multi-tasking behavior and
information & social "overload" it undoubtly promotes has a nearly
unsurmountable/inscrutable, diverse and continually evolving impact
over the global, highly connected human society. In order to evaluate
its influence at any point in time one has also to consider additional
factors such as cultural background and even very specific, almost
individual-based, deep-rooted, hard-wired, brain chemistry/anatomy
features. Over time, a huge number of most often vaguely defined and
much disputed terms have appeared in the medical, psychology and
sociology literatures as a means to satisfy the great urge of the media
to artificially simplify and classify some behavioral phenomena
supposed to be directly related to this technology advancement,
especially concerning the increasing centrality and pace of the
Internet on society.
Computer and Internet speed and automation of an ever increasing
set of "normal" tasks also induces a heavy musti-tasking behavior and
speed up expectancies, within the workplace/academia and outside it.
Now, we have to add in other, eventually more complex and highly
parallel taks. For some people, technology has promoted a significant
(sometimes self-)pressure to get things done as quickly as possible in
order to accelerate results and personal success. A proportion of these
people evolves to forms heavily "addicted" to severe multi-tasking
behavior, drawing upon the constant stimulation and the instant
gratification their multiple gadgets made possible. People become
anxious/frustrated/bored if there's no tasks to do, but also if there's
a lot of accumulated tasks. Therefore, this extreme action- and
anxiety-packed work/lifestyle comes with clear "side-effects", mainly
irritability and a drastic reduction in the attention span. The
ubiquity of technology has created a subculture of the Always On + a
brewing tension between productivity and freneticism. The gadgets
designed to lighten our loads and to promote readily connection and
communication among people also unsnare us as they can disrupt our
work, our thoughts and what little's left of our private lives(1).
Unlike the competent, "addicted" multi-tasker, the majority of people
don't feel good with task parallelization and overload; frequently,
they are unable to prioritize and they can demonstrate distractability,
impulsiveness, haste + feelings of guilt and inadequacy. There's a
panicky feeling that you can't keep pace with accelerating
The january/2006 issue of the Harvard Business Review publishes a paper by Dr. Edward M. Hallowel,
MD (Psych.), relating these common phenomena to a work-related variety
of a condition known as Attention-Deficit Disorder (ADD). New names
have been coined: Attention-Deficit Trait
(ADT) or pseudo-Attention-Deficit Disorder (pADD). There's a long-held
principle in psychology that, adapted to the case at hand, says that
some individual-related, optimal amount of multi-tasking would increase
arousal, perhaps leading to greater efficiency. Abose this probably
fuzzy threshold, multi-tasking would be detrimental to efficiency and,
as a result, to mental and physical health.
The technologies that are supposed to overload our circuits are in
the main front to address these problems. Proposed improved
technological solutions range from intelligent office-communication systems to revolutionary user interfaces(2).
But to truly take control of our productivity, we also have to stop
fooling ourselves about our capacity to juggle. At the same time, we
have to stop pretending that we are machines that can endlessly process
tasks without a break.
Here's a quotation by Richard Meier in Communications Theory of Urban Growth, published in 1962:
quantitative estimation of the information value of messages
transmitted in the various communications channels, and the
identification of the human capacity for information handling by
experimental techniques, suggest that the problems of widespread
saturation in communications flow may arise withing the next
In that same paper, Mr. Meier coined a term that now,
not quite a half-century later, not only become a cliché but it's also
almost demodé: information overload. In fact, some way we have gone
beyond mere overload to the point of wallowing in information
pollution, the contamination of a person's life by excessive data. Some
people respond with information environmentalism,
but most people simply get tired of the onslaught. Some of those people
develop the following symptons: constant searches for more information,
increased anxiety and self-doubt in decision making, sleeplessness and
paralysis of the analytical capacity. By and large, it doesn't matter
what kind of data people can find. People keep searching and, most
often, what they find are more and more options, which confuses them
and makes them more indecisive and then more anxious. You just have to
find and collect. You just have to know. And it's not always high
quality or somewhat useful data. Not only that, you also enjoy sending
this information to others - i.e., to info pollute. There's a bunch of
terms/concepts that can possibly be applied to this setting.
Infornography, selon Wikipedia, is one of the many terms used to
define an "addiction" to information. People addicted to infornography
overly enjoy sending, receiving, exchanging and digitizing information.
Moreover, in modern society, information is not only a valuable
commodity from a practical point of view, but it's also something that
generates an almost sexual thrill, something that we lust after and
enjoy hunting, because it's special and gives us power. A portmanteau
word formed by the combination of the words "information" and
"pornography", the term was popularized as the title of the eleventh
episode of the cult cyberpunk anime series "Serial Experiments Lain"
(1998). In a sense, information can facilitate the development of an
alternate world for "escapism", therefore people who use information to
strive can subtly be called "infornographers". The "addiction" can
polarize one's worldview: there are the Junkies (nowadays little crowds
of highly connected people probably with a sense of auto-sufficiency)
and there are the large majority of Regulars. As a junkie usually
doesn't have the ability to fully comprehend the regulars and to engage
in face-to-face relationships with them, there's a significant risk
that people affected will have no real social life(3).
While some people argues for the existence of an "Internet addiction",
this consideration seems to involve a logical impossibility, a category
error. Here's an important (and subtle) distinction: if you're
compulsive, there's something you want to do again and again
(confusingly called an "addictive" thing in everyday language), but if
you have a fully-fledged behavioral addiction for something you keep
doing that thing even when it clearly has serious damaging effects. An
addiction is a specific biological disorder of the brain's reward
system that permanently alters the survival "system", hence your
motivational priorities. An additional hallmark is a component of
denial. Sometimes the addictive behavior is first triggered by a
pharmacological agent, which is a useful figure here as it relates to
an external driving force, while in a compulsive behavior there's
internal driving forces (e.g., food, sex, Internet)(4). In this sense,
the Internet instant gratification only plays into underlying,
pre-existing obsessive-compulsive tendencies or enables an avoidance
behavior - i.e., people would do something else if they have no access.
Therefore, the Internet might provide powerful tools to amplify
"predispositions". In fact, Internet use was generally associated with positive effects
on communication, social involvement and well-being, but for extroverts
only! People who are dysfunctional in daily life, having problems with
mood and motivation are in a group with above average risk(5).
Here, again, some improved technological solutions are being offered/promised - e.g., the next generation, semantic web.
Meanwhile, technological ubiquity, the large availability of all types
of information and the current state of the Internet are fueling strong
ideas involving an open, decentralized, collaborative and student-centered/owned education, especially in order to satisfy a list of specific 21st century skills. As too many divergent and delusioned "experts" spoil clarity, this list includes various types of media literacies for consistent citzenship formation. All kinds of hybrid publishing products are rapidly emerging, putting an end to the traditional structures of journalism and science communication and discussion. In government issues, people are increasingly cooperating by supporting petitions for transparency
(accessability, approachability and promotion of information) and
(public) decentralization. As anyone can add information to the
network, the real question is how to deduce/synthesize it, use it,
analyse it, generate ideas, create and keep meaningful and open
conversations - i.e., how to equilibrate the 3 elements of the
information ecology: production, distribution and processing.
(1)Statistics of the costs on productivity of these (in)voluntary
interruptions continue to appear, from business to academia.
(2)These can comprise an office-communication system that calculates
whether an interrupting message should be immediately transmitted or
delayed on the basis of, say, that worker's appointments and projects
that day, his past preferences and habits, and the organizational-chart
between sender and receiver (difficult privacy issues here).
Furthermore, in next-generation systems interruptions can be designed
to be less intrusive: incoming messages may just provide enough
information for the worker to judge whether to grab it or ignore it
until later. More revolutionary, there's a tendency towards natural language user interfaces and the return to physical controls.
(3)As technology somewhat partially removes people from their
biologically "programmed" states, entire industries have sprung up to
foster this growing tendencies (e.g., sports, TV, pornography,
religion, computer games). However, many activities largely considered
to be normal parts of a healthy existence (e.g., eating, exercise, sex)
can also become avenues of escapism when taken to extreme. Meanwhile,
there's also of note that escapism can have a healthy element of
emancipation, in it's attempt to figure a different reality (see
(4)Note that here you also have to account for different lifestyles and cultural backgrounds (e.g., sexual-positive practices).
(5)A particularly illustrative example comes from the mainly japanese social phenomenum of the hikikomori
- i.e., reclusive individuals who have chosen to withdraw from social
life due to various personal and social factors in their lives. Many of
their remaining (solitary) activies involve heavy use of the Internet.
Clinically speaking, there's little difference between hikikomori and
more formal clinical definitions of severe social withdrawal due to
depression. In fact, obsessive-compulsive behavior and depression can
both lead to or be a consequence of this extreme form of social
withdrawal. In the local discourse, the cause and the marked prevalence
in Japan has been generally attributed to several cultural factors. In
one hand, there's often soft parenting tendencies or even a codependent collusion between mother and son.
There's often a sense that one is unable to fulfill the rigid and high
level expected social roles, as they have not yet formulated a sense of
"true self" and one's "public facade", both needed to cope with the
daily paradoxes of adulthood. There are several arguments claiming the
modern society failure to provide sufficiently meaningful
transformation rituals for promoting certain susceptible types of youth
into mature roles within society.