DAVID LEVY, A PROFESSOR in the University of Washington's School of Information, believes he may have witnessed the first-ever interruption-by-e-mail. It happened back in the '70s, when he worked at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, a think tank at the forefront of today's computing world.
"Gloria Mark, a UC-Irvine professor, has been studying attention
overload and multitasking among workers in a financial-services office.
So far, she's found that the average employee switches tasks every three
minutes, is interrupted every two minutes and has a maximum focus
stretch of 12 minutes."
He and about 25 other technologists were watching a visiting scientist demonstrate how to make use of multiple parts of the computer screen. The visitor was typing and talking when a text popped up on one side of the screen. "Oh look," he said, "I've received a message!" He typed a response, sent it into cyberspace and went back to his presentation.
It was stagecraft intended to highlight one of those ta-da! moments. But not everyone was impressed — or even pleased.
"I remember a visiting senior computer scientist from another country got very angry about it," says Levy. "He said programming requires focus and shouldn't be interrupted. He basically said, 'You call this the future!' "
The future? Well, yes and no. E-mail, as it turns out, was just one drop in a dam-breaking flood of technology that has inundated our lives. Today, the constant pinging of your e-mail can be like the drip-drip-drip of water torture. We're swimming in doodads and options — text messaging and search engines, Blackberries and blogs, Wi-fi, cell phones that try to do all of the above, and the promise that we haven't seen anything yet.
We're shooting through technological rapids that have opened doors and changed the dynamic of work, how we communicate and live, and sometimes even think. All these tools have made our lives easier in many ways. But they're also stirring deep unease. Some are concerned that the need for speed is shrinking our attention spans, prompting our search for answers to take the mile-wide-but-inch-deep route and settling us into a rhythm of constant interruption in which deadlines are relentless and tasks are never quite finished.