In 2008, business-tech author Nicholas Carr (contributor to the Harvard Business Review, Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and other esteemed publications) fretted in an essay for The Atlantic (“Is Google Making Us Stupid?”) that, while the power and depth of the Internet enabled him to write best-selling books, such as Does IT Matter? and The Shallows, his rapid-researching habits were eroding his ability to concentrate.
In the now-famous piece, Carr wrote that he felt the effect most keenly when reading books:
“Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.”
The issue led him to write The Glass Cage. Published last year, the book is billed as an exploration of the “consequences of our ever growing dependence on computers.”
One conclusion from his work:
“Shifting our attention to computer screens can leave us disengaged and discontented.”
Carr wasn’t the first pundit to question our increasingly technologized lifestyles and the benefit of spending hours with our eyes glued to screens of various sizes on a variety of digital devices. And he won’t be the last. But the prominence of his work—and weight of his opinion—has skewed the continuing debate toward the negative. Prevailing wisdom seems to be that too much screen time rots our brains, corroding neurological and emotional health (not to mention weakening our vision).
The matter is particularly vexing for those of us involved in business communications—on both sides of the process. (This very post required several hours of screen time, and surely this item is just one of many you will read today through glass rather than on paper.)
A recent piece in Fast Company by tech writer Kevin Zawacki (another contributor to The Atlantic) challenges the rising tide of digital dissenters.
“Even if the perks don’t outweigh the perils, can we walk away from a day of emails, spreadsheets, and YouTube distractions with certain cognitive functions boosted, rather than sapped?”
The scientific community (and even Carr himself) responded in the affirmative, especially in terms of our communication skills:
1. Executive Function Skills
Sandra Calvert is a professor of psychology at Georgetown University and director of the school’s Children’s Digital Media Center, a research organization funded by the National Science Foundation, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and other distinguished donors. Calvert believes screen time can boost what she calls “executive function skills” that include competencies such as reasoning and problem-solving, which inform business communications.
2. A Knack for Brevity
Hours reviewing emails and text messages necessarily lead to hours responding to them. Calvert feels this process can motivate business communicators to keep dialog brief and focused on essentials. In addition, embarrassing corporate communiqués like those revealed by the Sony hack can renew their appreciation for protocol and propriety.
3. Rapid Shifting, Fast Tracking, Timely Insight
“There seems to be pretty good evidence that our visual acuity improves,” Carr admitted to Fast Company. “People’s ability to keep track of lots of different images or other bits of information simultaneously gets better… So, the more time you spend online, you get quicker in your ability to shift your visual focus from one thing to another,” which can translate into the ability to track multiple business issues—and articulate them to colleagues in short order.
Some researchers feel scapegoating screen time for what could be lack of initiative is disingenuous. Daphne Bavelier studies the human brain and cognitive sciences at Rochester University and University of Geneva: “‘Screen time’ is meaningless—what matters is what you do while on the screen… The good, the bad, and the ugly faces of screen time will all have to do with which activities you engage.”
A comment that could serve as a definition of productivity in today’s world of digital business communications.
What do you think? Can you have too much screen time or is it all about moderation? Share your thoughts below.