The Modern Brain, Besieged

By Robert MacMillan
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Monday, April 25, 2005 10:36 AM

One editor stands behind my right shoulder with a question about my story. Another sends me messages on our in-house messaging system. Two AOL Instant Messenger windows flash on and off with chatter from some friends. The desk phone is ringing -- again -- with a PR rep pitching me on something I might write about someday, while I'm shuffling e-mails to figure out which ones I'll answer. Then someone calls on the cell phone. I am the center of the information universe, and it's making me stupid.

And I'm not the only one. A new study out of the U.K. claims that the profusion of ways to communicate renders us wired but completely distracted. The end result is a poor one: a 10-point reduction in our IQs.

Gee, do you think it shows?

The study, commissioned by Hewlett-Packard and conducted by University of London psychologist Glenn Wilson, calls the term "Info-Mania." HP provides a guide on its causes and cures , including a questionnaire that determines whether you suffer from this malady. You may if you answer "yes" to questions such as:

* On the train, do you call the office every 10 minutes to check messages and give your ETA?

* Do you secretly (or openly) check and send e-mails during meetings or meals?

* Do you "just have to check messages" before going to an hour-long meeting? Do you check for new messages within one minute of leaving a meeting?

* Do you seem to spend more time reading and responding to communications than you spend actually doing what you need to do?

Apparently Fleet Street thinks enough people fit the profile, so the study got plenty of play in the British press. The Scotsman offered this summary: "Solution is: Switch off!"

Infomania, Wilson told the paper, can affect the brain's effectiveness even more than marijuana, though "the impairment only lasts for as long as the distraction. But you have to ask whether our current obsession with constant communication is causing long-term damage to concentration and mental ability."

Wilson conducted the test on 80 people, according to Kerry Gaffney, an outside PR spokeswoman for HP. In the first test, Wilson instructed them to tend to a variety of tasks as well as take an IQ test. In the second test, he asked them to perform the same tasks while under a deluge of phone calls, e-mail messages and other electronic claims to their attention. They were also instructed, however, to not pay attention to those distractions. Unfortunately for them, they couldn't help it.

The Scotsman said the study affirms what some business leaders have long suspected. It cited the example of telecommunications mogul John Caudwell, who banned his staff from e-mailing, calling it "the cancer of modern business." (But he's fond of using mobile phones , apparently.)

The study suggests that companies which give employees multiple communications outlets also prescribe best practices, the Times of London reported . "These 'best practice tips,' [include] using 'dead time,' such as travelling time, to read messages and check e-mails and turning devices off in meetings. David Smith, commercial manager of Hewlett-Packard, said: 'The research suggests that we are in danger of being caught up in a 24-hour "always-on" society.'"

It seems that the Times and I found it more than a little ironic that a technology powerhouse like HP would publicize a report that suggests we need less technological interference, not more.

Gaffney, the HP PR person, acknowledged to us that it sounds strange. "We're not saying, 'Don't use technology.' We're saying that it can make you more productive at work, but you have to use it properly." HP's Smith told the Times that it was similar to a car company designing a 150-mph sports car and telling drivers to obey the speed limit.

The Times article provided some quick statistics that show that if you use the car metaphor, we're all pushing well beyond Autobahn speeds. It said more than 50 billion e-mails are sent every day, compared with 12 billion in 2001, though most are spam. It also said Britons exchange more than a million text messages a month, and that U.K. residents now get their first mobile phones, on average, at the age of 8.

Now, it's worth noting that the research is far from conclusive, especially with such a small sample size. The problem with a study like this is that it's designed more for water-cooler conversation than serious scientific reflection. Nevertheless, it strikes a chord. E-mail, instant messages and other communications media allow us to get a lot of data at the same time, but do we profit by it? I like to know what's going on not only in the technology world but in the news in general. As a reporter, I don't want to miss a thing, but I know that too many channels of input reduces my ability to respond well.

It seems like two choices exist. We either have to learn how to work with increased amounts of incoming information or we really do need to back away from the devices, limiting the time that we check our IMs, e-mail accounts, voice mail messages and the like. I'm curious to hear from the readers. Is this really a problem? If you think so, how do you handle it? Let me know.

It's All Geek to Me

Adjusting to the warp speed of digital communications, as everyone with a case of Blackberry thumb knows, means learning a new language. To Wall Street Journal columnists Tim Hanrahan and Jason Fry , text-message speak is less a fad than a new way of communicating that will suit many people's lifestyles into the near future: "Just as the Internet productivity helped boost the economy, we think some messaging productivity will, too -- more-efficient message spelling at work means less time spent typing. We've already dropped periods from many messages -- next up could be those nettlesome apostrophes, which many people tend to misuse anyway. ... When we see the Standards Are Dead camp and the Grammar Is Fascist camp preparing for battle, we find ourselves square in the middle. That probably means we'll get slaughtered in the ensuing clash, but we like to think there's a middle ground. In search of it, we're raising the Context Is Everything banner: Kids should be able to write a coherent school paper that wouldn't raise eyebrows among folks who date back to the Univac era, and who cares if their IMs are impenetrable to anyone born before the moon landing."

Red Blog Diaries

A character on the old TV show "Fawlty Towers" once noted that "Great English Lovers" must be one of the titles in the library of the world's shortest books. Lewis Wingrove, 44, is trying to change that notion. Wingrove, who was born in England to a French mother, lives in Lyon, France, where he blogs about his exploits and reports on what the Times of London calls the "predatory habits of Frenchwomen."

"Bloggers the world over chronicle their love lives and 10 million French, mostly women, date via the Internet. Mr Wingrove, a self-confessed geek, has become a phenomenon because of his precise, deadpan style. Elle magazine described him as 'more sly than vulgar.' Libération called him 'the most famous shagger on the web.' 'The writing is lively, the tone is naughty but never too vulgar as he savours every date all the way from the bistro to bed,'" the Times reported. Wingrove "is negotiating a book on his 'unforgettable socio-erotic experiment', a chronicle of romance via Meetic, a dating site. His cold detail of 21st-century courtship, much unprintable in a newspaper, reads like a blend of Mr. Pooter's diary, Bridget Jones and Brett Easton Ellis."

The Times also reported that he reprints the pick-up chats he had with more than two dozen women, all of whom, by the way, he rates on a number of physical attributes as well as "charm/charisma," "wit/complicity" and "tenderness/feeling." According to Wingrove himself, "When you are managing 25 relationships at the same time, it is the only way to remember that Véronique's son plays tennis and that Marie has a diesel car... It may look brutal to rate and categorise the opposite sex, but everyone really does that when they go out on a date."

The site is not available in English, so you'll have to use a machine translator or a compliant Francophone to translate his copious entries. For anyone who does this, be forewarned, his tales are definitely rated "R."

Howard Dean, Part II

Lightning could strike twice in the same place as far as Joe Trippi is concerned. The former campaign manager for presidential hopeful Howard Dean tells Los Angeles Times columnist Ron Brownstein that "an independent presidential candidate who struck a chord could organize support through the Internet just as inexpensively."

"Somebody could come along and raise $200 million and have 600,000 people on the streets working for them without any party structure in the blink of an eye," he said in an interview. Brownstein said this might not be as simple as Trippi seems to think, but that the Republican and Democrat machines "are pursuing strategies that create an opening in the center of the electorate, even as the Internet makes it easier for a new competitor to fill it." Brownstein also wrote that in the ideal environment, "imagine the options available to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) if he doesn't win the 2008 Republican nomination, and former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, now that he's dropped his flirtation with running for mayor of New York. If the two Vietnam veterans joined for an all-maverick independent ticket, they might inspire a gold rush of online support -- and make the two national parties the latest example of the Internet's ability to threaten seemingly impregnable institutions."

And in a political footnote, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Menlo Park, Calif., venture capitalist F. Noel Perry has come up with a game called the " California Budget Challenge " that puts you in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's place to figure out how to save the state from budget deficits and other not-so-virtual problems.

"If nothing changes, California faces a $12.2 billion budget deficit in 10 years. How do you cut programs or raise taxes to eliminate that gap? The game involves choosing options, most of them based on plans already being studied by the governor or the Legislature. Players, for example, can cut $3.8 billion from the deficit by raising taxes on families making more than $280,000 a year or collect an additional $4.1 billion by reinstating the car tax at the 2 percent level of 1997," the paper reported. "While the numbers, graphs and pie charts of California's $85 billion general fund budget seem unlikely to pull hard-core gamers away from 'Doom' and 'Grand Theft Auto,' Perry sees the state's finances as something everyone has a stake in and few people know much about."

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