The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on our Capacity for Processing Information

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This is the title of a classic psychological research paper, written by G. A. Miller in 1956. Miller’s thesis was that our cognitive system has limits to the amount of information a human can process in a short time. He discovered this more than 50 years ago before we had machines that could image the brain and find out so much about how our cognitive system works.

It should come then as no surprise that researchers are finding that extreme multi-taskers, people who constantly are bombarded with signals from a variety of devices, become distracted and lose capability in performing routine tasks. A long article in today’s NYTimes tells the story of a family where the father and two children are constantly on their phones and in front of screens. The parent tells how he nearly lost an opportunity to sell the company he founded because he overlooked an email containing an offer for 13 days. His son has begun to perform poorly at school. It’s only one long story but appears to be a common result of too much time before the screens.

While many people say multitasking makes them more productive, research shows otherwise. Heavy multitaskers actually have more trouble focusing and shutting out irrelevant information, scientists say, and they experience more stress. And scientists are discovering that even after the multitasking ends, fractured thinking and lack of focus persist. In other words, this is also your brain off computers.

Another example of the dark side of technology. There is a lot of irony here. The use of these devices is often touted as improving productivity in today’s information rich world.

I see another consequence with important links to sustainability. One of the features of technology as both a tool and as a way of thinking about the world is that is turns everything, including human beings, into objects that appear to us only as a means or an instrument to accomplish some purpose. The world, in Heidegger’s words, becomes “standing reserve.” Humans lose their basic sense of care in the process. As I have written, sustainability depends on restoring this fundamental sense of caring to the way we think about and visualize ourselves. The Times article goes on to say:

Mr. Nass at Stanford thinks the ultimate risk of heavy technology use is that it diminishes empathy by limiting how much people engage with one another, even in the same room. “The way we become more human is by paying attention to each other,” he said. “It shows how much you care.” That empathy, Mr. Nass said, is essential to the human condition. “We are at an inflection point,” he said. “A significant fraction of people’s experiences are now fragmented.”

I believe we have gone beyond that inflection point and must work hard to recover. The Times story could easily have been written about alcohol or other substance-induced addiction. The devices written about in the article are no different from drugs in their effects, except that they lack equivalent recognition and social stigma. Quite the opposite. Apple sold two million iPads in the first two months following its introduction to the market.

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