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Sun, Jul 06, 2003 - Page 12 News List

E-multitasking said to have a magnetism akin to amphetamines

People who find the analogue world boring without simultaneously being in cyberspace are being tagged with a scarlet letter A -- for addict

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

This is Charles Lax's brain on speed.

Lax, a 44-year-old venture capitalist, is sitting in a conference for telecommunications executives at a hotel near Los Angeles, but he is not all here. Out of one ear, he listens to a live presentation about cable television technology; simultaneously, he surfs the Net on a laptop with a wireless connection, while occasionally checking his mobile device -- part phone, part pager and part Internet gadget -- for e-mail.

Lax flew from Boston and paid US$2,000 to attend the conference, called Vortex. But he cannot unwire himself long enough to give the presenters his complete focus. If he did, he would face a fate worse than lack of productivity: He would become bored.

"It's hard to concentrate on one thing," he said, adding: "I think I have a condition."

The ubiquity of technology in the lives of executives, other businesspeople and consumers has created a subculture of the Always On -- and a brewing tension between productivity and freneticism. For all the efficiency gains that it seemingly provides, the constant stream of data can interrupt not just dinner and family time, but also meetings and creative time, and it can prove very tough to turn off.

Some people who are persistently wired say it is not uncommon for them to be sitting in a meeting and using a hand-held device to exchange instant messages surreptitiously -- with someone in the same meeting. Others may be sitting at a desk and engaging in conversation on two phones, one at each ear. At social events, or in the grandstand at their children's soccer games, they read news feeds on mobile devices instead of chatting with actual human beings.

These speed demons say they will fall behind if they disconnect, but they also acknowledge feeling something much more powerful: They are compulsively drawn to the constant stimulation provided by incoming data. Call it OCD -- online compulsive disorder.

"It's magnetic," said Edward M. Hallowell, a psychiatry instructor at Harvard. "It's like a tar baby: the more you touch it, the more you have to."

Hallowell and John Ratey, an associate professor at Harvard and a psychiatrist with an expertise in attention deficit disorder, are among a growing number of physicians and sociologists who are assessing how technology affects attention span, creativity and focus. Though many people regard multitasking as a social annoyance, these two and others are asking whether it is counterproductive.

The pair have their own term for this condition: pseudo-attention deficit disorder. Its sufferers do not have actual ADD, but, influenced by technology and the pace of modern life, have developed shorter attention spans. They become frustrated with long-term projects, thrive on the stress of constant fixes of information, and physically crave the bursts of stimulation from checking e-mail or voice mail or answering the phone.

"It's like a dopamine squirt to be connected," said Ratey, who compares the sensations created by constantly being wired to those of narcotics -- a hit of pleasure, stimulation and escape. "It takes the same pathway as our drugs of abuse and pleasure."

According to research compiled by David E. Meyer, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, multitaskers actually hinder their productivity by trying to accomplish two things at once. Meyer has found that people who switch back and forth between two tasks, like exchanging e-mail and writing a report, may spend 50 percent more time on those tasks than if they work on them separately, completing one before starting the other.

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