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How cutting-edge technology can harm our ability to perform

Published: Friday, Sept. 13 2013 5:10 p.m. MDT

Contemporary computers come to consumers ready and willing to generate myriad distractions that ostensibly prevent work from getting done. And it’s such a new phenomenon that there’s really no historic precedent.

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In a blog post provocatively titled “How Today’s Computers Weaken Our Brain,” the New Yorker’s Tim Wu posed a compelling question earlier this week: What would have happened if some of history’s great thought leaders and innovators — people like author Franz Kafka or Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, for example — had had to perform their work on a machine laden with distractions galore like today’s Twitter, email and Internet?

“Kafka (and) Wozniak had one advantage over us: They worked on machines that did not readily do more than one thing at a time, easily yielding to our conflicting desires,” Wu wrote. “And, while distraction was surely available — say, by reading the newspaper, or chatting with friends — there was a crucial difference.

"Today’s machines don’t just allow distraction; they promote it. The Web calls us constantly, like a carnival barker, and the machines, instead of keeping us on task, make it easy to get drawn in. … We have built a generation of ‘distraction machines’ that make great feats of concentrated effort harder instead of easier.”

Wu summarily dismissed the idea that human brains just need better training to multitask more effectively. He linked to a 2009 article from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “Cognitive control in media multitaskers,” that said, “Heavy media multitaskers are more susceptible to interference from irrelevant environmental stimuli and from irrelevant representations in memory.

"This led to the surprising result that heavy media multitaskers performed worse on a test of task-switching ability, likely due to reduced ability to filter out interference from the irrelevant task set. These results demonstrate that media multitasking, a rapidly growing societal trend, is associated with a distinct approach to fundamental information processing.”

Fast Company’s Drake Baer blogged at length about Wu’s New Yorker piece. After dissecting and analyzing many of the ideas advanced by Wu, Baer concluded, “We need to become literate in our brains' unexamined tendencies — and learn how to work with them.”

Email: jaskar@desnews.com

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