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UC Mag
Richard "Zippy" Grigonis
Executive Editor,

IP Communication Group

"Interruption Science" and UC

Back in my days working in children's television, I used to joke with the head researcher about how two and three-minute educational video segments had reduced children's attention spans to the point where their only other major source of information was TV commercials (he was not amused).


Over the past 10 years or so, adults have suffered an even more schizoid-like fragmentation of their waking lives, thanks to the very technologies Yours Truly has promoted over the years: Cell phones, emails, PDAs, instant messaging, and now the great "movable feast" of them all - unified communications. This has led to such fields of study as "Interruption Science" and other forms of academic scrutiny and theorizing, not to mention an interesting book by Maggie Jackson entitled, Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age. It's just a wild guess on my part, but I think she's a bit pessimistic about contemporary communications technologies.


In one 2007 study by Microsoft and the University of Illinois, some Microsoft workers performing serious tasks (e.g., writing computer source code or a department report) were interrupted by and responded to incoming email and instant messages. It took them about 15 minutes for them to gather their thoughts and once again concentrate on what they had been doing previously, during which time they saw and replied to other messages or did some web surfing for news, sports and entertainment. A more recently survey by Gloria Mark (an "interruption scientist") claims that the average knowledge worker switches tasks every three minutes, and, once distracted, takes nearly 30 minutes to resume the original task. Hey, but don't we all take this stuff in stride? In the face of the myriad communications channels afforded (or perhaps inflicted) upon us by UC, haven't we all risen to the occasion by becoming energized, multitasking fiends? Only a select few, unfortunately. Steve Lohr, writing in the New York Times (March 25, 2007), says, "The productivity lost by overtaxed multitaskers cannot be measured precisely, but it is probably a lot. Jonathan B. Spira, chief analyst at Basex, a business-research firm, estimates the cost of interruptions to the American economy at nearly $650 billion a year."


In a 43folders.com podcast entitled, "The Myth of Multitasking," Merlin Mann said, "So-called multi-taskers are really just splitting their time and attention into smaller slices than you; no one can really do more than one thing at a time." Thus, our many simultaneous tasks are "time sharing" our brain (just like terminals connected to the first timesharing computer developed by General Electric in 1960).


This fragmented existence doesn't do wonders for interpersonal relations, either. As Marci Alboher recently wrote in her "Shifting Careers" blog, "For all our connectivity, we often catch little more than snippets and glimpses of one another." Experts suggest looking at your emails only on the hour. IBM has instituted "Think Fridays" worldwide wherein employees make a deliberate effort to avoid or at least reduce email, meetings and interruptions.


Interruption Science may end up mapping the brain and determining exactly how much productivity is being lost, but I seriously doubt that we can turn around the ongoing trend. For decades, Asians have always accused American business of being too short-sighted. Now, we've managed to digitize our short-sightedness with communications devices that distract us not on a scale of years, but minutes and seconds.


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