Turn on, tune in, spin out

lcd_monitor.jpgPsychiatrist Edward Hallowell studies attention deficit disorder (ADD) and is becoming increasingly concerned that using information technology is causing an acquired form of the condition.

He argues that the constant task-switching required when using the likes of mobile phones, email and instant messaging can lead to an effect he has called ‘Attention Deficit Trait’ or ADT.

This shares some of the same features of ADD, such as impaired concentration, restlessness and increased distraction, but seems to improve when individuals are away from the workplace.

In contrast, ADD is usually thought to be a relatively fixed condition, presumably present from birth, although not diagnosable until about 6 years of age.

As outlined in a recent Scientific American article (PDF), it is known that simple television viewing can have both short and long term effects on the mind, including impairments in basic cognitive functioning.

Cynics might suggest that the same parallels might not apply to other technology and this might be Hallowell’s attempt to make a name for himself in the lucrative world of business psychology.

It is unlikely however, that information technology is entirely neutral with regards to psychological function, although there is relatively little hard evidence to judge how positive or negative these effects might be.

Link to interview with Dr Halliwell on ADT.
Link to summary from techdirt.com.
PDF of Scientific American article on the psychological effects of television.

2 thoughts on “Turn on, tune in, spin out”

  1. I wonder whether pointing the finger at “information technology” and “multitasking” is right. I mean, there are user interfaces and user interfaces.
    Example: When I’m cooking, the locus of my attention shifts from the pot in-front of me to the recipe, to the spice rack, to the chopping board, and so on. But all the time there are smells and sounds (and, if it gets really bad, a smokey haze in the air). I don’t have to switch my attention every 5 seconds to the garlic to see whether it’s cooked enough for the next ingredient–I can trust that when it’s ready, that’ll bubble up in my attention. Likewise there are any number of things that I only pay attention to if necessary: when I open the knife draw I retain a memory of what other knives are available, so I may decide to do some washing up in a slow patch. But I don’t have to make that decision consciously–I just have that information available for all my everyday decisions.
    Contrast this with my computer, or my television. Short of checking deliberately, I have no idea that a programme I like is about to be broadcast. Dialog boxes jumping about and the necessity to spell out messages letter-by-letter on the keyboard mean I can’t do my email without really focussing on it. I have no trust that my computer is going to be exactly the same day-to-day, and there’s precious little pre-attentive information available. Nor can there be: the whole metaphor of the user interface – in all our technologies – is all-or-nothing with regards to focus. It’ll take a ground-up redesign to take care of that.
    But I’m not sure we can blame this trait on people having a lot to do.

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