Michael Stusser, our #DigitalMadness columnist, offers an essay-obituary about Professor Clifford Nass, one of his personal inspirations.
We interviewed a ton of experts for my documentary Sleeping with Siri — neurologists, technologists, futurist behavioralists — and one after another refused to make definitive statements about the effects that our constant smart phone usage and multi-tasking madness might have on interpersonal relations…except one: Professor Clifford Nass.
Clifford Nass, who passed away last week at the age of 55, not only studied the effects of multi-tasking on the brain at Stanford’s Communication Between Humans and Interactive Media Lab, he made the information accessible, so dolts like me could understand it (and steal it for my article and film…). He also had an excellent sense of humor. In one of his TED talks, Nass warns parents about leaving their kids alone with a purple dinosaur who claims to love them without having ever seen them or interacted with them. “We are friends as friends should be.”
Dr. Nass’s main body of work illustrates how our ever-increasing multi-tasking leads to shortened attention spans and the ability to…wait. What was I talking about? Right! On-task! The good professor argued – with 25 years of hard data to back up his assertions – that multi-tasking not only makes us less efficient, but less social. (Anyone who has had a friend “listening” to you while surfing their phone can attest to this.) Oh, and all that thumb-texting also makes ya less bright: A study on Stanford students found the heaviest multi-taskers wrote much shorter sentences, and their ideas were haphazard and disconnected.
“So, Tolstoy’s like totally, dark and gloomy and whatever, and, I then saw this video on excessive facial hair, and I was like, EWW!”
And for those of us who are so frenzied that we regularly need four or more streams of media going at all times (Facebook, Twitter, Call of Duty, iTunes), we’re going to have a harder and harder time concentrating when only one thing is going on (like reading a bedtime story to our kids…).
Nass was no Luddite. The man understood and delighted in technology, digging into the various effects of computer voices (i.e. people prefer a male voice barking directions at them in the car) and helping the automobile industry figure out what should be on the dashboard (speed, temperature, music, mapping, etc.), as well as elements that perhaps should not be (such as bringing the DVD player into the driver’s field of vision). Soon, Nass predicted, the windshield will be just another screen, making it more likely you’ll miss the “real world” outside, such as a boy running after a ball that just bounced in front of your moving vehicle.
Think of Clifford Ivar Nass as the visionary canary – a frumpy, fun-loving, persistent and brilliant canary telling each and every one of us Facebooking, Pinning, Yelping, Googling FourSquaring digital monkeys THAT THE MINE IS GETTNG OVERLY SATURATED WITH BELLS AND WHISTLES AND PINGS AND TEXTS AND PICS AND POSTS AND VIDS OF CATS, and that we best make some minor adjustments (single-tasking focus and breaks from many media streams) before the white noise of the Twitterverse blankets us in a deadly and mindless haze of distraction.
Nass’s work was an inspiration to the director of my film, Marty Riemer, and myself, and helped launch our TechTimeout program – where we ask students to disengage from social media – only for a little while – and do a digital detox for a few days. The idea is for young people – many of whom were born with an iPad in their hands – to gain some perspective on technology, and its ever-expanding role in our lives by participating in a digital blackout. Taking the net out for this generation is scary as hell, but the students always wind up making some mind-blowing revelations – not to mention the occasional awkward eye-contact with their parental units and siblings….
In our own presentation about finding balance, we use some of Nass’s tests on the audience, and see time-and-time again that individuals can not filter out irrelevant information. “They’re suckers for irrelevancy,” Nass noted, “Everything distracts them!”
The bottom line is that there is no such thing as a “good multi-tasker,” – in fact there is no such thing as multi-tasking: what we’re really doing is switching – from one task to another – and losing efficiency each time we switch back to the latest task at hand. Sure, you can walk and chew gum at the same time…but you’d do each better if you separated the tasks, and walked purposefully for a while, then enjoyed the flavor and texture and bubble-blowing qualities of the gum at a later date. Nass said it best:
“It turns out multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking. They’re terrible at ignoring irrelevant information; they’re terrible at keeping information in their head nicely and neatly organized; and they’re terrible at switching from one task to another.”
As I was researching Nass and his wonderful accomplishments on-line, various ads popped up in front of the articles I was attempting to read, and e-mails and friend requests flew in along with Words with Friends challenges. I knew the professor was probably laughing from high above while thinking:
“Just concentrate on the story at hand, without multiple windows and distractions, and you’ll actually be able to implement some of my ideas into your own reality….”
Ultimately, what resonates with me the most is Nass’s notion that, by burying our faces in our smart phones and digital devices, we suffer from “emotional atrophy.” We miss the “paralinguistic cues,” that so much interaction relies on. How, then, will new generations become good at observing and experiencing true emotions without practice? The Professor suggested that a partial solution was to truly value our face-to-face time, making it, as he said, “sacred.” In a way, Nass was a cutting-edge teacher with an old-school lesson, simply asking us all to, “Look me in the eye when you’re talking to me.”
And is that really too much to ask?