Is Smart Tech Creating Dumb People?


By Samuel Greengard

All the smart devices we're using may actually be making us dumber. California State University-Dominguez Hills psychology professor Larry Rosen recently studied 263 students of various ages and discovered that a typical student can concentrate for only about six minutes before the lure of an electronic device interceded. What's more, during a 15-minute observational period, only about 65 percent of the students' time was spent on task and those who use devices more heavily were off task more often.

Unfortunately, adults don't seem to fare much better. A 2011 study of 500 U.S. businesses conducted by online collaboration firm harmon.ie found that social tools designed to increase productivity actually cost businesses millions of dollars per year in lost productivity.

In fact, harmon.ie reports that nearly 60 percent of work interruptions now involve e-mail, social networks, text messaging and IM, or switching windows among disparate standalone tools and applications. In fact, 45 percent of employees work 15 minutes or less without getting interrupted, and 53 percent admit that they waste at least one hour a day due to all types of distractions.

This lost hour per day translates into $10,375 of wasted productivity per person annually, assuming an average salary of $30 per hour. Respondents said that they have difficulty working (33 percent), no time for deep or creative thinking (25 percent) and they face information overload (21 percent).

Meanwhile, a recent Wall Street Journal story titled "Is Smart Making Us Dumb?" pointed out that the technology freight train requires an engineer. So-called "good smart" systems put us in control of technology by allowing us to make more informed choices. A "bad smart" system or device, on the other hand, limits our ability to think and often reduces our innate intelligence.

Consider it no irony then that as systems—from subways to airplanes to enterprise IT infrastructure—become more highly automated, human oversight and interaction becomes more critical. A glitch, mistake or misjudgment can magnify a problem and create far more serious repercussions.

CIOs should take note. How workers navigate and use today's systems is emerging as a key issue—and one that will require growing attention and resources in the months and years ahead. It's critical to build systems, devices and tools that minimize distractions and train workers how to tune out unnecessary noise. But it's also essential to build "good-smart" systems that make things simpler and faster but also, in the end, nurture thinking and innovation.