Why can’t we switch off?

Here’s a little something from someone called John Timpson writing in the Daily Telegraph today: “I took my BlackBerry on its first holiday in January 2005 and my wife Alex didn’t like it. “Don’t let that thing ruin our holiday,” she said “I thought you had come here to get away from the office.”

Here’s me on the same subject (extracted from Future Minds).

“A banker acquaintance of mine once spent a day in a car park above a beach in Cornwall because it was the only spot in which he could make mobile contact with his office. His firm had a big deal on and his virtual presence was required. “Where would I have been without my Blackberry?” he said to me later. My response was: “ On holiday with your family taking a break from work and benefiting from the reflection that distance provides”. But his phone proved that he was useful and important. Then again, I’m sure his wife felt rather annoyed by the fact that his entire office had come on holiday with them. He hasn’t spoken to me since we had this conversation, although he does send me emails occasionally. I usually pretend that I’m on a beach and haven’t received them.

It’s happening everywhere. I have a middle-aged female friend (a journalist) that goes to bed with a small electronic device every night. Her husband is fed up and claims it’s ruining their sex life. Her response is that she’s in meetings all day and needs to take a laptop to bed to catch-up with her emails.”

Almost there…

This is almost it. The final version has a few changes (no Steve Jobs with the iBook of Jobs). Geddit? No. Neither did anyone else, which is why it’s gone. There’s also a mistake on the final version attached to which is a great story (which is why I left it in). I’m just waiting on a hyper-link for the final version and I’ll put it up and tell all.

Busy today talking with some people (The Food People in fact) about a joint food trends map and doing an interview on the future of work for the Wall Street Journal.

Why Don’t We Think?

Something else from the cutting room floor…. I know, I just can’t let go.

Perhaps one of the reasons that people avoid deep thinking is that deep thinking opens our eyes to what is going on in the wider world and in some instances this can be quite terrifying. The science-fiction writer Arthur C Clarke once remarked that one of the most fundamental questions relating to human existence was whether or not there is anyone else out there (in deep space). There are two possible answers to this question, yes or no. Each offers frightening prospects. But both answers also open our eyes to the thought that we should take much greater care of each other while we are alive here on Earth.

Paperless offices – a rant

Getting back to physical offices, it’s not just the workers that are starting to disappear but the paperwork too. Historically, paper has always been an important part of office life and the idea of a paperless office has been a symbol for modernity and efficiency since the early 1960s. The early theory was that computerisation would eventually render physical paper in physical offices obsolete. Unfortunately, what happened was the exact opposite. From about 1990 to 2001 paper consumption increased, not least because people had more material to print and because printing was more convenient and cheaper. But since 2001 paper use has started to fall. Why?

The reason is partly sociological. Generation Y, the generation born roughly at the same time as the Personal Computer, has started working in offices and these workers are comfortable reading things on screens and storing or retrieving information digitally. Moreover, digital information can be tagged, searched and stored in more than one place so Gen Y are fully aware of the advantages of digital paper and digital filing. All well and good you might think but I’m not so sure.

One of the great advantages of paper over pixels is that paper provides greater sensory stimulus. Some studies have suggested that a lack of sensory stimulation not only leads to increased stress but that memory and thinking are also adversely affected.

For example, one study found that after two days of complete isolation, the memory capacity of volunteers had declined by 36%. More worryingly, all of the subjects became more suggestible. This was a fairly extreme study but surely a similar principal could apply to physical offices versus virtual offices or information held on paper versus information held on computer (i.e. digital files or interactive screens actually reduce the amount of interaction with ideas).

Now I’m not suggesting that digital information can’t sometimes be stimulating but I am saying that physical information (especially paper files, books, newspapers and so on) is easier on the eye. Physical paper is faster to scan and easier to annotate. As we’ve seen in an earlier chapter, paper also seems to stimulate thinking in a way that pixels do not. Indeed, in my experience the only real advantage of digital files over physical files is cost or the fact that they are easier to distribute.

There are some forms of information that do need to be widely circulated but with most the wider the circulation list, the lower the importance of the information or the lower the real need for action or input. As for the ability to easily distribute information this can seriously backfire. Technology is creating social isolation because there is no longer any physical need to visit other people in person. Paperless offices are clearly a good idea on many levels but I wonder what the effects will be over the longer term? What I’m getting at here is that offices aren’t just about work any more than schools are just about exams. Physical interaction is a basic human need and we will pay a very high price if we reduce all relationships (and information) to the lowest cost formats.

This is a pre-edit extract from my new book, Future Minds, out UK October 2010 (Australia/NZ April 2011).

Preface From New Book (pre-edit)

“Google knows everything” – Nick, aged 8.

This is a book about how the digital era is changing our minds. It is about how new digital objects and environments, such as the internet, mobile phones and e-books are re-wiring our brains — at home, at work and at play.

Technology clearly has a lot to do with this, although in many instances it is not technology’s fault per se. Rather it is the way that many trends are combining and technology is either facilitating this confluence or accelerating and amplifying the effects. This may sound alarming but it needn’t be. We have created these digital technologies using imagination and ingenuity and it is surely within our grasp to decide how best to use them — or when not to.

But can something as seemingly innocent as a Google search or a mobile phone call really change the way that people think and act? I believe they can — and do.

This thought occurred to me one morning when I was looking out into space, from the rooftop of a hotel in Sydney. But then I reflected. Would I have thought this if I were on the phone, looking at a computer screen, in a basement office in London?

I think the answer is no. The hotel was a calm and relaxed environment with expansive harbour views, whereas an office can be a box of digital distractions. Modern life is indeed changing the quality of our thinking, but perhaps the clarity to see this only comes with a certain distance or detachment.

Does this matter? I think it does. Mobile phones, computers and iPods, have become a central feature of everyday life in hundreds of millions of households around the world. There are currently more than one billion personal computers and more than four billion mobile phones*(1) on the planet. In 2005, 12% of US newlyweds met online, while kids aged 5-16 years of age now spend, on average, around six hours every day in front of some kind of screen. This technological ubiquity must surely be resulting in significant attitudinal and behavioural shifts — but what are they? The answer is that nobody is really quite sure. The technology is too new (the internet is barely 5,000 days old) and our knowledge of the human mind is still too limited.

We do know the human brain is ‘plastic.’ It responds to any new stimulus or experience. Our thinking is therefore framed by the tools we choose to use. This has been the case for millennia but we have had millennia to consider the consequences. This has arguably changed. We are now so connected though digital networks that a culture of rapid response has developed. We are so continually available that we have left ourselves no time to properly think about what we are doing. We have become so obsessed with asking whether something can be done that we have left no time to consider whether something should be done. Perhaps the way our brains are constructed means that we just can’t see what is going on.

Moreover, the digital age (the internet, search engines and screens in general and mobile phones and digital books in particular) is chipping away at our ability to concentrate. As Professor Mark Bauerlein, author of The Dumbest Generation points out, screen reading “conditions minds against quiet, concentrated study, against imagination unassisted by visuals, against linear sequential analysis of texts, against an idle afternoon with a detective story and nothing else”. We are therefore in danger of developing a new generation that has plenty of answers but few good questions. A generation that is connected and collaborative but one that is also impatient, isolated and detached from reality. A generation that is unable to think in the ‘real’ world.

It’s not just the new generations either. We all scroll through our days without thinking deeply about what we are really doing or where we are ultimately going. We are turning into whirling dervishes, frantically moving from place to place in search of superficial ecstasy, unaware that many the things we most yearn for are being trampled by our own feet. It is only when we stop moving and the dust settles that we can see this destruction clearly. Our attention and relationships are becoming atomised too. We are connected globally, but our physical relationships are becoming wafer thin and ephemeral. Digital objects and environments influence how we all think and are profoundly shaping how we interact.

Ultimately, I believe the quality of our thinking – and ultimately our decisions – is suffering. Digital devices are turning us into a society of scatterbrains. If any piece of information can be recalled at the click of a mouse, why bother to learn anything? We are all becoming google-eyed. If GPS*(2) can allow us to find anything in an instant, why master map reading? But what if one day the technology doesn’t work? What then?*(3)

It is the right kind of thinking – what I call deep thinking – that makes us uniquely human. This is the type of thinking that is associated with new insights and ideas that move the world forward. It is thinking that is rigorous, focused, deliberate, independent, original, imaginative and reflective. But deep thinking like this can’t be done in a hurry or in an environment full of noise and interruptions. It can’t be done in 140 characters or less. It can’t be done when you are doing three things at once.

Yes it’s possible to walk and chew gum at the same time but I am concerned about what happens when you add a Twitter stream, a Kindle and an iPod into the mix. In short, what happens to the quality of our thinking when we never really sit still or completely switch off?

Why does all this matter? Because a knowledge revolution is replacing human brawn with human brains as the primary tool of economic production.*(4) It is now intellectual capital (i.e. the product of human minds) that matters most. But we are on the cusp of another revolution. In the future, our minds will compete with smart machines for employment and even human affection. Hence, being able to think in ways that machines cannot, will become vitally important. Put another way, machines are becoming adept at matching stored knowledge to patterns of human behaviour, so we are shifting from a world where people are paid to accumulate and distribute information to an innovation economy where people will be rewarded as conceptual thinkers. Yet this is precisely the type of thinking that is currently under attack.

So how should we as individuals, organisations and institutions (the latter being those deliberately built environments where we spend most of our lives) be dealing with the changing way that people think? How can we harness the potential of new digital objects and environments whilst minimising their downsides?

Personally, I think we need to do a little less and think a little more. We need to slow things down. Not all the time but occasionally. We need to stop confusing movement with progress and get away from the idea that all communication and decision making has to be done instantly. The tyranny of the next financial quarter is just as damaging to deep thinking as a noisy office fitted with fluorescent lighting.

I’m sure that by writing this book I will be accused by some people of going backwards, or of being a pastist. But remember that some of the tried and tested technologies of yesteryear have grown old precisely because they are good and we should think twice before deleting them. Equally, being a member of the Tech No movement doesn’t mean smashing the nearest digital device. It simply means questioning potential consequences or asking for some level of balance. It is about arguing that we need a little more of this and a little less of that.

This is a book about work, education, time, space, books, baths, sleep, music and other things that influence our thinking. It is about how something as physical, finite and flimsy as a 1.5 kg box of proteins and carbohydrates can generate something as infinite and potentially valuable as an idea. Hence, it is for anyone who’s curious about thinking about their own thinking and for everyone who’s interested in unleashing the extraordinarily potential of the human mind.

Whether you are interested in how to deal with too much information, constant partial attention, our obsession with busyness, leisure guilt, the myth of multi-tasking, the sex life of ideas, or the rise of the screenager, this book explores the different aspects of how digital objects and environments are re-wiring our brains – and makes some practical suggestions about what we can do about it.

* (1)Half of British children aged between 5 and 9 now own a mobile phone. For 7 to 15 year-olds the figure is 75%. This is despite government advice that no child under-16 should be using one. The average age that children in the UK now acquire a mobile phone is 8 years.

* (2) I interviewed someone for a job recently and one of her questions was whether or not she could use my car. I said she could, so she asked whether my car had a GPS in it. It doesn’t. She turned the job down. I wish her luck, whatever direction her life goes in. The point here is that GPS and Google give us information but they do not impart understanding and in some cases they can prevent us from properly planning ahead.

*(3) We assume the internet will always work. But what if it doesn’t? A US think-tank (Nemertes Research) says internet use is rising by 60% each year worldwide. Unless we can increase capacity they claim ‘brownouts’ (frozen screens, download delays etc) will become commonplace, relegating the internet to the status of a toy. How would you cope with that?

* (4) A study by McKinsey & Company, a management consultancy, claims that 85% of new jobs created in the US between 1998 and 2006 involved “knowledge work”.

My New Book

Given that my new book is out in October (April onwards outside UK) I think it’s time to start dripping in some of the content as a series of blog posts. Please note that the final published version will be somewhat different from the blogged version due to ongoing changes. The book’s title is Future Minds: How the Digital Age is Changing Our Minds, Why this Matters and What We Can Do About it. Here we go…

Digital technology is a double-edged chalice. It liberates but it enslaves. It gives us freedom and access but it also creates isolation and reduces compassion. But can something as seemingly innocent as a mobile phone or a Google search really change the way that people think and act? This is a very important question. It is also a question that is actively engaging the minds of a number of eminent scientists, particularly those who study the physiology of the brain. According to Professor Susan Greenfield, a brain researcher at the University of Oxford, “We could be sleepwalking into a new world of technology without even considering what it is doing to our brains.”

For example, is it just a coincidence that 79% of children in Britain now have a TV in their bedroom and that Ritalin prescriptions (for attention deficit disorder) have grown by 300% over the last decade? Or the fact that 1/3 of US kids live in a home in which the TV is on “always” or “most of the time”, that 80% of toys now contain an electronic component, or that tech gadgets are now the Christmas presents of choice in the US – amongst preschoolers?

Where Do People Do Their Best Thinking?

You may remember that as part of my new book (Future Minds) I spoke to a few people asking them the question: “Where and when do you do your best thinking?” Here are some more responses…

“Over the decades, I think that my best thinking has occurred when I am visiting a foreign country, have my obligations out of the way, and am sitting in a pleasant spot – in a café, near a lake – with a piece of paper in front of me.”

“Usually when I am not working, and most often when I am travelling!”

“The most relevant (issue) for me is ideas needed for a piece of writing. As a drummer I am generally required to avoid deep thinking of any sort. So it’s probably whilst driving on a motorway, or on the start of a transatlantic flight. I think it’s to do with some distractions so that the thinking is a little freer – there is nothing worse than tidying the desk, sharpening a pencil and sensing the creative part of the brain creeping out the back door… also there’s a nice reward element that can be employed. No motorway fry up, or extra dry martini before there’s an opening line invented.”

“Lying in bed in the dark, with the white noise generator producing a soothing whoosh, I sometimes have a few seconds of modest insight.”

“I love doing household chores: loading the dishwasher, scrubbing the floors, scouring the pans; the polishing, the cleaning. All the time I am thinking of ways to improve upon the equipment; what would bring forward the technology.”

“I’ve had creative thoughts while walking down the street, in the shower, on the squash court, in the bathroom (of course), while shaving… .”

“I do my best thinking in bed – sometimes even when asleep. I wake up having solved a problem.”