Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Digital barrage may not be good for us

Ignoring for now the irony that I found it through Twitter, I think this New York Times story about research into excessive use of digital devices has some interesting and important points.

As the article points out,

when people keep their brains busy with digital input, they are forfeiting downtime that could allow them to better learn and remember information, or come up with new ideas.
The author notes other research as well about how "processing a barrage of information leaves people fatigued."

This makes a lot of sense to me. If the flow of incoming information is constant, how can the recipient ever make sense of larger patterns in it? I get my best ideas and insights when I'm not actively thinking about anything in particular and not taking in more information, such as when I'm walking, driving, mowing the lawn, or taking a shower.

I don't own any sort of digitally connected mobile device like an iPhone or Blackberry, and in a similar vein to the ideas in this article, I really don't want to. I feel no need or desire to be that connected, that constantly updated on the world beyond my reach. That's not to say I'm a Luddite or want to live under a rock. I check e-mail at my home and office computers quite frequently, read my Twitter feed a few times a day, get RSS feeds from a number of locations into Google Reader and engage in other digital monitoring, such as looking at online news sites.

But the difference is that I'm not concerned about getting any or all of it immediately as it comes available. If it takes me a while to get an e-mail or if I read tweets that are a few hours old, that's fine. And the research noted in this article seems to say that being unplugged for a notable part of the day this way is crucial to become more effective at understanding the information that does come my way.

The article reminded me of another piece I saw, and blogged about here a few months ago -- a Frontline report called "Digital Nation: Life on the Virtual Frontier." A quote in there from MIT professor Sherry Turkle summed it up nicely: "There really are important things you cannot think about unless it's still and you are thinking about only one thing at a time."

That's worth stopping to ponder.

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