Thursday, June 10, 2010

"Distracted from distraction by distraction"

Author Nicholas Carr raises an interesting question in his new book - - “Is Google making us stupid?” The general thesis of Carr’s new book, The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains (2010), is our electronic revolution and multitasking culture is changing the way our brains work. The electronic world - - from e-mail, to Twitter, to Google, to Facebook, to hundreds of other applications - - has created an environment that divides our attention. A multitasked workplace that has produced a culture of frequent interruptions and a scattering of our thoughts.

Productivity improvement and benefits produced in the Internet Age are balanced against a reduction in deep thinking, the desire and capabilities to constantly monitor events, and the “switching costs” associated with jumping from the report you are writing to checking and responding to e-mail (Picture the design engineer - - from report preparation, to CAD drawings, to specifications, to e-mail requests, to notices on the latest smart phone, to an IP phone system, to modeling software - - all multiplied by five separate projects in an environment where it is difficult to filter the essential from the trivial). Our capacity, quality, and depth of thinking combined with our abilities of filtering information refined after a million years of evolution has run head on into a new information world Carr refers to as “concentration-fragmenting mishmash.”

Carr writes the following:

Our use of the Internet involves many paradoxes, but the one that promises to have the greatest long-term influence over how we think is this one: the Net seizes our attention only to scatter it. We focus intensively on the medium itself, on the flickering screen, but we’re distracted by the medium’s rapid-fire delivery of competing messages and stimuli. Whenever and wherever we log on, the Net presents us with an incredibly seductive blur. Human beings “want more information, more impressions, and more complexity,” writes Torkel Klingberg, the Swedish neuroscientist. We tend to “seek out situations that demand concurrent performance or situations in which [we] are overwhelmed with information.” If the slow progression of words across printed pages dampened our craving to be inundated by mental stimulation, the Net indulges it. It returns us to our native state or distractedness, while presenting us with far more distractions than our ancestors ever had to contend with.

Engineering is one of the impacted professions that needs to think about our intellectual ethic - - a set of assumptions about the nature of our knowledge and intelligence. Our foundation has always been deep and creative thought. What happens to that foundation in an information world that encourages the rapid, distracted sampling of small bits of information from many sources in an ethic of speed and efficiency? How does a profession respond going from an environment of concentration and reflection to one of scanning and skimming?

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