Is it Too Late to Pay Attention?

I’m pretty sure this column is too late. I’m swimming against the tide, spittin’ into the wind, fighting that proverbial uphill battle. But I want to get on the record with this.

Technology-enabled distraction is fast-becoming a dangerous dark side to the benefits of faster communication and computing. From the multi-billion dollar ring tone industry, to instant messaging, and iPods, there seems to be a limitless appetite for that which distracts us from focused conversation, attention to the task at hand or such apparently quaint practices as reading.

Jonathan Spira, CEO and chief analyst at Basex, has been studying the larger issue of information overload, but agrees with me that technology-enabled distraction, is a huge part of the problem. Basex released a free white paper Information Overload: We Have Met The Enemy and He Is Us last month. Co-authored by Spira, the report includes a section on the cost of interruptions. Some 28 percent of a knowledge worker’s day is consumed by interruptions, according to surveys and interviews Basex conducted in 2005 (before, I feel compelled to note, YouTube really took off).

Basex estimates those interruptions translate into 28 billion lost man-hours annually to U.S. companies alone. Assuming an average salary of $21/hour to those knowledge workers the cost to business equals a staggering $588 billion. I’m skeptical of such a huge dollar amount, but hey, even if Basex is off by a factor of ten, we’ve got a problem.

“In the enterprise, it’s not just random interruptions, it’s all the information coming at you, the emails, the IMs, and Blackberry alerts,” said Spira. We’re getting so conditioned to receiving new information, he said sometimes we go looking for new Web sites rather than focus on the task at hand. (Color me guilty).

“Technology has made it much easier to interrupt,” said Spira. “We’re easily interrupted, and the fact is most of the messages aren’t urgent or important. We’ve lost focus and perspective on this.”

The result? Spira said some of the large companies he works with are convinced it costs billions of dollars a year in less innovation and productivity.

Sure this isn’t a new phenomena. Back in the 1980s as a rookie tech reporter in a Boston-area bureau, I had to deal with a gruff California editor who always took my calls on a speaker phone and spoke in a distant, harsh-sounding voice.

My then editor (I don’t want to embarrass him, so let’s call him Jim C. Dvorak) was very intimidating. No matter how good a story I pitched, I got a curt response like “Is that all you got?” and sometimes no answer at all, just silence. Months later I finally got out to the main office and met Jim. And right then I discovered the source of his distant manner; he had a joystick in his hand and was playing a video game on the computer while talking to someone on speakerphone. Turned out Jim wasn’t such a bad guy after all – he just had different priorities back then.

So this tech-enabled distraction business isn’t really new, it’s just getting worse. And perhaps even career-threatening.

“I really believe if people want to be around in the next few years it’s one of those issues that if you don’t understand and nip in the bud, you’re going to be gone,” said Spira.

When I was in college, one of the “cool” books was Robert Pirzig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. One of Pirzig’s metaphors for life in the book was that if you want to fix the motorcycle right, you don’t give it to a mechanic who listens to music blaring while doing it.

Gosh, at least that’s my recollection of the book. Hopefully the passage of time, and all these years of being driven to distraction, haven’t warped that memory.

In any case, if he didn’t say it, he should have. Gotta go, there are several IM’s waiting that just won’t stop blinking.

David Needle is San Francisco bureau chief for

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