Too Addled to Think?

It seems that everybody I know is just too busy 24/7 or at least during their waking moments. If they are not at work they are probably checking their smartphone, instant messaging, text messaging, Facebooking, Tweeting, jawboning on the telephone all while driving or keeping an eye on that baby or the news ticker on CNN. It seems like at least the business world is just suffering from a massive information overload. I for one find it hard to keep up with emails, social networks, real networks, people and staying on top of the latest information and worldly goings on. The worst thing (or best?) is that we haven’t seen anything yet. This information explosion will pale in comparison to the exponential growth projected for technology and the dissemination of information.

Some 15 years ago, I was lucky enough to spend a warm spring week in Geneva, Switzerland while attending a conference. In those days my Motorola cell phone was like a small brick and it would get hot after 15 minutes of use. I had a couple of days to myself before the conference and decided to explore Geneva. On a warm day, I worked my way up from the lake towards the old town admiring the buildings and quaint old architecture. After some narrow streets, I happened onto a broad sun lit square. On all sides of the square were cafes and bistros with outdoor tables and chairs. Being mid afternoon, they were all closed. The only other inhabitant in this large square was a middle-aged gentleman sitting on a chair placed strategically to soak up the sun’s rays. A pipe hanging from his mouth had gone out but there he sat enjoying the sun and doing absolutely nothing. I stood there for many minutes pretending to observe the square while I actually watched this man and his absolute inertia. I thought he might have been dozing, but I watched his head turn as I moved about the square. Many a day since then, I have thought of how lucky this man was to have the luxury to do nothing. He probably had a few hours of those moments every day and I hope he still does.

Until a few years ago, I had never heard of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) where children are too distracted to focus on what they need to do. Doctors actually prescribe medicines like Ritalin for these totally normal looking kids. If this is a problem to be fixed, then much of our urban adult population needs to go on Ritalin. With so much information hitting people from different directions, most people are on hyper attention deficit disorders. I like to think that they suffer from Attention Deep Deficit Leading to Extreme Distraction (ADDLED).

As an amateur historian and military enthusiast, I have read some books about the National Security Agency (NSA) which is our big listening ear focused on the whole planet. The NSA, it seems, is suffering from information overload. Its collection systems are collecting so much information that it is challenging to analyze this information soon enough to get tangible intelligence out of it. I hope for our national security’s sake that they find an answer to this problem.

It seems like we humans now have that same issue where our brains are choking on so much information, and we do not have the time and resources to analyze it. As a result, I feel that people are becoming increasingly distracted and less efficient or focused on what they have to do. Unlike NSA’s super computer farms, our brains are truly not built for multi-tasking. When management gurus talk about multi-tasking they are really talking about being organized and systematic to get multiple things done quickly in a given time frame.

About a year ago I narrowly managed to avert a serious accident on the road thanks to providence and my anti-lock brakes. The culprit of course was a text message I was checking on my smartphone while driving. It was serious enough for me to make a resolution for my kids’ sake that I would never take my phone in my hand again while the car was in motion. I still do take calls on my hands free system.

Similarly, in my opinion the only way to avoid being ADDLED is to partition the information flood into digestible chunks. I set aside certain parts of my day to catch up with social networks, news feeds, information articles or trivia. During my evenings at home, I try to find an hour or more to just ruminate on information (much to my wife’s annoyance). Friday mornings are usually good for some sit back thinking. Also keep in mind that much of this information flood is garbage with the occasional nugget floating by, so it is better to not take it all too seriously and focus on what is really important.

Yes, it would be nice to occasionally take the time to smell the roses. I think some days I would just like the opportunity to be like that man sitting in a sunny square in Geneva doing absolutely nothing.