Picture this: Businesspeople, all pretty intense, meeting around a conference table, each checking for and responding to e-mails with a BlackBerry or Treo while conversing with each other, expressing opinions and making decisions. This is not an exaggerated cinematic image but a reality in many companies. And if that seemingly comical group scene doesn't resonate with you, what about one of someone on the phone while reading and sending e-mails? Bingo. Most of us can see ourselves in that scene. (Can't you just tell when the person on the other end of the phone is not totally there?) Is this a form of nimble mental juggling or is it a sign of diminished focus correlating to diminished understanding?
Not too long ago cost-cutting corporations and cost-conscious entrepreneurs created the concept of multitasking: working on multiple responsibilities. A person doing a job that could have been two or even three jobs. Moving through the work day and going from one function to another has been the norm for many businesspeople for years. Today, however, thanks to proliferating communication technology and our need to know everything as soon as possible, our multitasking is not only throughout the day-it's within the moment.
Linda Stone, a former Microsoft executive, has characterized our extremely connected times as the age of "continuous partial attention." When I read about Stone in a July New York Times column by Thomas Friedman, I had a thank-you moment. And after reading the rest of Friedman's column, I felt a lightness and a sense of relief that I was not alone in my thinking. Here was the author of The World Is Flat writing about what I've been quietly pondering. Friedman is a tech advocate, repeatedly expressing his concern about the United States falling behind in our advanced knowledge of science and math. His concerns, like mine, are not about the tools, but about the users.
Friedman's own words: "Continuous partial attention is when you are on the Internet or cell phone or BlackBerry while also watching TV, typing on your computer and answering a question from your kid. That is, you are multitasking your way through the day, continuously devoting only partial attention to each act or person you encounter.
"It is the malady of modernity," Friedman writes. "We have gone from the Iron Age to the Industrial Age to the Information Age to the Age of Interruption. All we do now is interrupt each other or ourselves with instant messages, e-mail, spam or cell phone rings. Who can think or write or innovate under such conditions? One wonders whether the Age of Interruption will lead to a decline in civilization-as ideas and attention spans shrink and we all get diagnosed with some version of Attention Deficit Disorder. I know that connectivity means productivity. But it is possible to overdose. There is such a thing as too connected, and modern society is heading in that direction..."
We can reverse the course on which Thomas Friedman sees us going. Knowing everything about one thing at a time should replace knowing something about everything of that moment. It'll take some collective self-discipline not to abuse the incredible technology that has been made available to us.