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Mastering the high-tech tools that help us

Experts see a rising pushback against digital distraction.

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Jacob Turcottte

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Multitasking has long been a badge of honor for the digitally well-armed, a term equating high personal productivity with computerlike efficiency.

But also widely discussed in recent years has been the notion that – as with computers, so with people – there is a price to pay for distributing attention too widely across tasks. What seems like a hyperproductive approach to work can actually be counterproductive.

Computer scientists have a word for the phenomenon: thrashing. That's when a computer is asked to do so many background tasks at once that its hard drive is overworked. That can paralyze its ability to do the important tasks a user requires.

As for humans, continuously communicating, or reeling in images and data, can dramatically slow our processing abilities as well, say experts in human behavior.

Getting a handle on digital distractions has far-reaching ramifications, says David Wertheimer, executive director of the Entertainment Technology Center at the University of Southern California. He says that such intense distractions are leading the American workforce down a road of deepening ineffectiveness.

"I see the American worker becoming less and less productive," says Mr. Wertheimer. "As workplaces get flooded with digital demands, such as constant e-mails and nonstop information, we are in danger of becoming a third-world-style economy, where much movement takes place but little actual effective work is being done."

After all, both computers and humans really only process one thing at a time, says futurist Simeon Spearman. The machines do this so quickly, in parallel processes, that they appear to be multitasking. But they are able to process far more information than humans – and are more capable with each jump in processor speed.

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