July 8, 2006

The Orange County Register

How wired is too wired?

By Gary Robbins

Started writing this column on Monday. Got interrupted by a phone call. Then another. Then by an editor asking about the space shuttle. Then by an instant message asking about a rogue thunderstorm. Then by a science story on CNN. Then by the impulse to check the Web for baseball scores.

Sound familiar? I'll bet that it does. For millions, the workplace is the scene of endless interruptions and distractions, which is often bad, sometimes good and getting more intense as we become ever more wired, figuratively and literally. There's even an emerging science that measures it. You'll be stunned by the details.

UC Irvine researchers Gloria Mark and Victor Gonzalez studied 36 information technology workers and found that the employees not only had to constantly juggle constant interruptions but widely differing tasks.

"We found that the average time spent per (task) for 36 people was about 3 minutes," Mark told me by e-mail. "This means that people switch (tasks) throughout the day about every 3 minutes."

And the workers shifted to a different project about once every 11 minutes.

Talk about Short-Attention Span Theater.

Actually, some of this chaos isn't really chaos. It's normal and welcome. The instant message about the rogue thunderstorm led me to write a weather story that was posted to the Register's Web site in minutes, fulfilling a demand. Readers tell us that they want the news to be "constantly current." I also updated my blog with the latest information about the launch of the space shuttle Discovery.

The march of technology has made this kind of thing possible. But there's a huge downside. How many times have you been immersed in work only to be distracted by the ring tone of a colleague's cell phone? And how many times has that call been about something idiotic?

A million times? Certainly seems like that.

The endless cell phone calls and pointless instant messages and junk e-mail make it hard to focus. Trying to cope with it all leads to mistakes. (I know because I've made them.) It's led to less civility. And I'm convinced that technology has shortened people's attention spans. There have been times when I've made items in my science blog shorter than I think they should be because I fear that people are losing the desire to read anything longer. That's probably an over-reaction; I get calls from people asking about something I've said toward the end of a long science story in print. But there are way too many interruptions and distractions in the workplace. And it seems like it's getting harder to grab and hold people's attention, even when you're trying to share something important.

I e-mailed UCI's Mark and asked her if we've become too connected. She saw some drawbacks, saying in one message: "I am currently living in Berlin on sabbatical. I've had shaky Internet service the last few weeks, and I'm convinced that it's due to the World Cup (of soccer) Internet traffic.

"I found that without the Internet I was incredibly more productive. So maybe this says something about how distracting the Internet is."

But in a subsequent e-mail, Mark added: "I don't think we're too wired. I just think we haven't developed the appropriate behaviors to learn how to best integrate technology into our lives."
How wired is too wired?

Media Inquiries
Media interested in interviewing ICS faculty, students or alumni should contact Matt Miller at matt.miller@uci.edu or (949) 824-1562.