Tom Chi  

Interruptive Technology and the Death of Deep Thought

June 30th, 2004 by Tom Chi :: see related comic

For those of you who know me, you know that I think Gauss is cool :: Gauss was so tremendously smart that he accomplished 10 times more than the average genius and I think I’ve started to understand how. Just imagine Gauss’s day: every morning he would wake up, and have nothing to do but work on his latest theories … 8-10 hours of uninterrupted time to think. Imagine that.

Nowadays its just the opposite: its hard to get 8-10 *minutes* of uninterrupted time, and this is mainly due to the interruptive communication technologies that saturate every minute of our waking lives. Its been shown that once someone has been interrupted from concentration it takes ~4 to 15 minutes to regain that initial level of concentration. Now if the mean time between interruptive events is on the order of 10 minutes, its not hard to see that the total amount of time that can be spent in deep concentration is exceedingly low (nearly zero, actually — depending on the distribution around the mean).I began thinking about this because I was musing over the idea of a neumonic device. Attributed to the middle ages, neumonic devices were “developed” as a means to memorize long passages of verse or abritrary daily facts :: this allowed the transport of news and other information in the time before the printing press. The mnemonic device is an amazing thing. It doesn’t hone the physical world (like technology), and it doesn’t directly chemically effect our brains (caffiene, drugs) — yet somehow it is able to extend the capabilities of regular people. The parentheses in the last sentence are there because nowadays we seek to improve our world in only 2 ways: the development of a smarter environment through technology, and the stabilization (or stimulation) of our internal chemistries through drugs. The irony of technology is that we make our environment smarter while making ourselves progressively dumber.

This relates to my initial thought: that the interruptive nature of our current technology makes it much harder to sustain concentration, and we are constantly moving toward greater and greater connectivity (=greater interruptibility). The biggest society-changing technologies in next decade will likely be ubiquitous internet connectivity to a rapidly multiplying base of devices (PDAs, cellphones, handhelds, laptops, etc) which could nearly guarantee that you’ll never get those 4 minutes. The beauty of connectivity is that it allows you to look up the answers for a huge range of questions, the drawback is that it removes the reasons to accumulate knowledge in your personal memory.

Taking a computing analogy: The storage hierarchy (registers, cache, memory, disk) exists because the closer data is to our processors, the faster we can use and synthesize that data into results. Now: the hierarchy for the human would be (working memory, long-term memory, disk-drive, internet). While its an incredible advantage to have lots of accessible data in your latter tiers (this is already happening as the internet gets richer and more reliable), it’s always good to try to hold as much as possible in the earlier tiers. This allows for more complete interaction between various memes.

As engineers we might need to rethink our approach to technology … to actively create technology that grows the abilities of the early mind tiers as well as the later ones. Otherwise we will likely become a culture with a 10 second attention span. …alright. back to work.

15 Responses to “Interruptive Technology and the Death of Deep Thought”
Ben wrote:

Very interesting, Tom. I’m reminded of a line from Indiana Jones where his dad (Sean Connery, I think) had lost the journal in which he wrote down a certain piece of vital data on their quest. Indiana asks why he didn’t remember it, and his dad simply replies that he wrote it down so he wouldn’t have to remember it! So is the bond that I share with my desktop (and physical sticky notes), and I always wonder at which point, my storage of this data will dumb me down enough that my role in life / work / society becomes dispensable / automatable (?).

Another note I have is that in this world of open-door policies, it’s becoming expected of people. Even my closed door doesn’t stop someone from assuming it’s still open (conceptually). I have (upon heavy-load periods) resorted to a signup sheet outside my door for people to enter their interruptions and a priority number; and I’d get back to them when I’m done my train of concentrated thoughts.

I’ve also noticed this higher connectivity = higher interruptibility equation, as we moved from snail mail, to email (when you had to dial-in and work with them offline) to email (when you were connected high-speed to the server), and now to instant messaging. Each seems to be a higher implied level of interruptibility, almost as if they were MEANT to interrupt the previous form of “more instant” communications.

Can be frustrating at times to get anything done!

Tom Chi wrote:

Another result of relying on these external devices to store our memories and thoughts is that we end up having very few things in our brains that entertain us. In “Flow: the pyschology of optimal experience”, the author explains how war prisoners in solitary confinement would keep themselves sane by reciting memorized poetry or otherwise employing their minds to entertain themselves. With fewer thoughts and memories directly in one’s head, there are fewer such things to keep our brains self-satisfied, and instead we fill the gap with external entertainment and stimuli.

For a personal example, before cell phones it was typical for people to remember a sizable working set of phone numbers. I would memorize them by imagining the geometry of the total shape formed when I had tapped them on a standard telephone pad. Some friend’s had great ones — one that swooped like a chinese character for the last 4 and another that looked like the graph of a hyperbola. In all I was able to recall quite a collection of numbers, and found this to be convenient and even fun.

Nowadays, I hardly remember any numbers. People would say: “well the technology has freed you from having to waste your brain space on useless data”… but really the space is not wasted if I don’t end up filling it with something else, and furthermore it is not “useless” since knowing a good set of numbers is a good hedge against catastrophe when something unexpected happens.

And such is the world today. We are encouraged to store less in our brains while dealing with more interruption. All in all it sounds like a perfect formula to minimize meaningful thought.

Bob Salmon wrote:

In the interests of fairness, I have to admit that in this area, Notes 5 is better than the version of Outlook that we used at work before switching to Notes.

In Outlook there was no way I could work out of getting it to remind you of meetings but not tell you that new email had arrived. The only way to stop the notification of new email was to close Outlook.

Notes 5 pops up meeting reminders, but leaves me to poll for new email (by switching to its window). Perfection would be notification of urgent email, but I’d rather other things in Notes 5 were fixed first.

Peopleware has some interesting things to say about interruptions vs. productivity. An exercise you might like to try (particularly if trying to convince your boss to give you somewhere quieter to work) is to keep a diary (to the minute) of what you’re doing at work in a given day. At the end of the day calculate the number of uninterrupted whole hours divided by the total number of hours at work. It will probably be distressingly near 0.

Following on from that is some results from the coding competitions (Coding Wars) that they have run several times. The results varied widely (the best was 11 times better than the worst), and they tried to explain this variation. Comparing the 1st and 4th quartiles -

How much dedicated work space do you have?
1st: 78 sq. ft. 4th: 46 sq. ft.

Is it acceptably quiet?
1st: 57% yes 4th: 29% yes

Is it acceptable private?
1st: 62% yes 4th: 19% yes

Can you silence your phone?
1st: 52% yes 4th: 10% yes

Can you divert your calls?
1st: 76% yes 4th: 19% yes

Do people often interrupt you needlessly?
1st: 38% yes 4th: 76% yes

As a user of IT you do have a certain amount of power: you could turn off your IM client, turn off your notification of email, divert your phone to voice mail. If you want instant communication you can, but you don’t have to. (I have yet to use IM, which clobbers my IT cred, but possibly increases my productivity.)

Other things are probably outside your direct control - hence the lobbying of your boss via the diary study. Peopleware makes a very good financial argument about how improving the working conditions for e.g. programmers is in a company’s own interests, rather than just pandering to prima donnas.

Paul Reinheimer wrote:

I really want an integrated IM/EMAIL/RSS/VOIP package with a granular ‘busy’ level. I can assign default priorities to all the things that can interrupt me (phone calls can interrupt me at higher levels than an interesting story on slashdot), and specific priorities to people, keywords or events. Idealy this should have some sort of a physical manifestation in terms of a dial and possibly even a light (particularily usefull in an office envrionment, your workmates would know that green = go, yellow = think first, red = it better be important). Having a dial vs just some click things on your screen is nice because it allows you touch something physically without changing screens. Something like the volume controll buttons on most recent keyboards could be ideal.

David Heller wrote:

I must concur w/ the sentiment of this, but I also have to say that I have found more and more abilities to find uninterrupted moments in both work and life. I have been somewhat succesful in promoting “offsites” at work here when I need to just better disconnected concentrated moments.

On the otherhand, I can always put my headphones on and user callerID to determine when to be interrupted.

BTW, Outlook 2003 has a done of different settings for being alerted, you can even set filters to alert you for that special ok-cancel reminder.

My main interrupter is myself. I am constantly checkign for e-mail b/c I just find it more interesting than what I’m doing. ;)

— dave

Kevin Cheng wrote:

And such is the world today. We are encouraged to store less in our brains while dealing with more interruption. All in all it sounds like a perfect formula to minimize meaningful thought.

I have trouble making the leap from storing more things externally -> less meaningful thought.

First, you have no evidence to say that we’re not replacing the space we are using for phone numbers with something else (an extra pop song’s lyrics, a few more famous quotes, maybe the memory of what a painting looks like). Secondly, there are numerous cases to show distributed cognition not only works, it is quite necessary to enhance both individual and group work. You use paper to scribble ideas and brainstorm, that’s another form of externalizing your thinking and memory but I don’t think anyone would claim that’s “minimizing meaningful thought”.

On a complete side note, I have to say that my purchase of Seinhauser noise blocking earphones has been one of the best investments ever. They put me in the zone quickly because I just cannot hear any outside conversations at all, even with the volume quite low and it doesn’t disturb other people either. Of course, I still have to shut off all the distractions on the computer.

Tom Chi wrote:

I have trouble making the leap from storing more things externally -> less meaningful thought.

Knowing something by heart vs. having to look it up is categorically different to the human mind. In the first camp you have a type of knowledge which can act as quick as instinct. Which is to say that it can act even before you have the conscious thoughts to go invoke it. In the latter camp, one must do a conscious series of actions before they can even locate the data to put it into working memory.

Why this matters is because the confluence of instinctual thoughts are the source of useful insight. If we decide that we don’t want any of this data inside or heads because rote memorization is “bad”, then we end up only allowing only unstructured things and bits of pop culture to bounce around in there.

First, you have no evidence to say that we’re not replacing the space we are using for phone numbers with something else (an extra pop song’s lyrics, a few more famous quotes, maybe the memory of what a painting looks like).

There is no shortage of space in there… so there is no particular reason not to have as much in there as you can. Memorizing numbers helps one practice sequences, and in my case, they also related to interesting geometries — an idea I later employed (via flash of insight) for an interesting approach to data encryption.

You are correct, however, that I have nothing more than the anecdotal evidence of someone who spends time introspecting on how the brain works. Your second point about “distributed cognition” however is a little convoluted. In writing down an idea you actually make it much easier to memorize/internalize, so I would not consider this a form of externalization. Externalization would be more the attitude: “the data is out there somewhere, so I will not bother engaging it mentally”.

Another dimension of this discussion is whether there are job types which are naturally attuned to time fragmenation and interruption. I’ll let my friend Dyske talk about that one:

Dom F wrote:

I’m doing a little bit of distributed cognition for my MSc project and find the discussion about externalising information and meaningful thought really interesting.

I think that the strategies for internalising stores of facts are really interesting – these strategies are not natural; we invent and employ them to support our cognitive mechanisms – some of these are made up by ourselves (from using our own ingenuity) and others are part of our cultural heritage e.g. Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain – this helps me remember the colours of the rainbow). These are artificial internal supports that we use; we also readily create external representations to support our cognition. Internal and external tools are what make our species intelligent.

When do I employ and invent these mechanisms? When I find it useful and it helps me. I think we are all cognitive economisers – we use internal and external supports that help us perform in the world effectively. In this discussion we have seen that a growing amount of supportive external structure has led to a decline in being able to retrieve arbitrary facts (we no longer have the need) – but does this make us dumber? I don’t think that remembering a bank of numbers and passwords makes us anymore intelligent. I would say that those areas that we choose to attend to and specialise in (e.g. HCI) almost inevitably becomes a bank of knowledge that we are close to and familiar with. If we take the view that we are not composed of a static collection of facts and world representations for calculation but that we are associative engines, then our own understanding of particular concepts will probably be more important than particular facts. I think here the richness is in meaning and understanding rather than the facts.

I think that internal and external structures to support cognition are an integral part of our thinking. We should use them both to economise on effort and empower us to perform in the environments we find ourselves in. Our intelligence is more associated with the development and use of these tools through own ingenuity and cultural heritage. I do not believe that our intelligence is compromised by freeing us from remembering facts that we don’t need to – our intelligence should be more associated with the development of higher level concepts and understanding (not something that can be too easily contained and accessed via external devices).

Tom Chi wrote:

I think here the richness is in meaning and understanding rather than the facts.

Interesting point, this is how I see it: there are many many words in the English language and learning vocabulary often starts as a rote memorization task. One could say that such exercises in memorization are not useful because there are plenty of resources to “look up” all those words. The problem is that while I might understand the concepts and grammatical constructs of a language, I am not really close to being able to do useful things with it until I have learned a lot of “facts” of the vocabulary.

At the core, people have a completely different relationship with the words they know by heart vs. the ones that they need to look up. The ones that you know by heart can be used in conversation with little or no thought, and to go even further — they play a hand in shaping our thinking. Our thinking is largely constrained by the vocabulary facts that we have stored in our memory. An example of this: sometimes when there is no direct translation for something you know in your native language, it is almost like there is a conceptual hole in the new language. It’s almost like the new concept can’t even come up to people because it has not been named and made into a fact. I think this effect is true not just of words, but of many bits of data and experience which on the surface just seem like memorized facts.

My argument is:
A) Having these facts in our heads helps extend our thinking and experience in countless ways.
B) We have no shortage of space to hold these facts.

C) Why not build technology that encourages the use of our brains in this way?

:: Although keeping less in our brain seems like a convenience it may be akin to robbing us of our experiential vocabulary.

JensR wrote:

Regarding facts stored in our brain:
Having building blocks available certainly is needed to find new connections between them, to get new insights, to get creative.
But I tend to view vocabulary a bit differently than other facts. Words are, along with direct sensory input, the very building blocks of our minds. BUT just memorizing vocabulary without any connected meaning will most likely not get you anywhere. Rote memorization does only help if it carries with it some meaning or helps to exercise some abilities (the geometry thing of Tom).

Regarding externalization of thoughts:
I tend to view this as a feedback loop. Putting thoughts out uses ohter brain circuits than just thinking about it. And actually seeing / hearing / smelling /touching my thoughts out there can give a whole new quality to them.
And, of course, my working memory is limited, to putting my thoughts out there, I can work with more complex concepts or just longer text - having them available at one time and not having to reconstruct them in my mind bit by bit. Putting my toughts out there frees some processing power to get further ahead.


P.S.: Oh, and of course having the basic _concepts_ of language available, you can always create your own words, dressing your thoughts, feelings into words (also known as ontological dumping if I’m not mistaken.)

Dom F wrote:

Is the crux of the matter in the content that the facts hold: the difference between ‘hohfulion’ and ‘chicken’?

Because ‘hohfulion’ is contentless it is meaningless and has no use - I could remember (with a struggle) hundreds of these contentless made-up words and I don’t think I would benefit. (I don’t think I value the cognitive pay-off between being forced to devise a strategy for remembering these words (or phone numbers) and benefitting from then possessing that strategy).

Words like ‘chicken’ fall within my web of concepts. I say ‘web’ as I don’t think meaningful words can stand alone. I completely agree that an extended web of contentful words would be helpful to me.

Extended vocabularly with meaning: Yes. Remembering more meaningless passwords and strings of symbols: I’m not convinced.

I am sure there are those out there that dislike the world that technology has created - forcing us to remember 4 digit pins here, 7 digit passwords there, meaningless codes and logins, etc. just to fit in. Taking the view that this recall is a struggle (I find it so) perhaps technology should be discouraged from this behaviour or we should have better support to solve the problems it itself has created.

Without looking: What was the word that I made up at the top of this posting?

The Gerbils Acrobat

Tom Chi wrote:

I agree that words hold a special place in terms of usefulness, but would still maintain that there are many things worth remembering that we no longer bother to. A phone number falls on the scale of meaning somewhere between “chicken” and “hohfulion”. It is left meaningful than “chicken” (which is understood by many) and more meaningful than “hohfulion” (which is understood by none).

I think the trick is twofold, one is picking the right things to remember, and the other is building them into larger systems of meaning. By following those two tenets, human memory becomes extremely powerful. Essentially I am arguing against the philosophy that technology should always be designed to relieve the brain of these duties, because in the cases where the data fits the two criteria above it might be more valuable for us to have it in our brains.

I agree that technology has also generated a lot of “useless” data — so the tendency is just to want to find a way to go from being a negative experience to a neutral one. Those bits of data aside, shouldn’t technology help us to better use and develop our powerful memory mechanisms especially given that when applied to useful data, they enrich our daily experience?

Inside C wrote:

Interruptive. Or maybe not.

Julian writes in his blog about his views on IM being interruptive, or maybe not in all cases, and how some things could be done to improve the situation. I really like the idea of the potential interactions between the…

vivian angelica wrote:

Levels of communication are based on the language utilized by the communicator (if he/she speaks more than one language) and also the communication level which interfaces with the social or academic level of the conversation. Plus we add the fact that every word comes from an initial thought and every thought has 2 components: knowledge/cognitive based component and an emotional component. Both these facts open an entire host of ideas and possibilities. I like your work! Thank you for sharing!

Carla Ciurlizza - Comentarios wrote:


Gracias a CesarS en Backdraft caí en OK/Cancel, un lugar muy interesante, donde me encontré con el artículo Interruptive Technology and the Death of Deep Thought. Parece que no soy la única que piensa que la tecnología mientras más nos…

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OK/Cancel is a comic strip collaboration co-written and co-illustrated by Kevin Cheng and Tom Chi. Our subject matter focuses on interfaces, good and bad and the people behind the industry of building interfaces - usability specialists, interaction designers, human-computer interaction (HCI) experts, industrial designers, etc. (Who Links Here) ?