A problem of focus

Technological gadgets were supposed to improve our lives, free up time to think, to create. David Levy, an iSchool professor and dedicated meditator, wonders if the opposite hasn't happened. We Twitter, Flickr, Facebook, Google, skim, scan, text-message, and instant-message, half-engaged in "hmmm...what?" conversations as we madly multitask.

Where, asks Levy, is the quiet time to reflect, focus, truly connect? What will happen to children who know everything about high-speed connection and nothing about the slow contemplation that leads to creativity and discovery?

"This is a dangerous trend for society if it becomes our dominant way of living our daily lives," he says. "There's nothing wrong with split-focus for periods of time, but when we're not giving our full attention to anything, it reduces our humanity and our effectiveness."

Attention's clearly on the wane. The typical office worker now checks email more than 50 times a day, visits more than 40 Web sites, and instant-messages 77 times. To address the onslaught of interruption and inattention, Levy has helped launch an experiment in Seattle and San Francisco he calls "contemplative multitasking." Backed by National Science Foundation funding, researchers are training workers in meditation techniques and then measuring their effectiveness on the job. Could these techniques reduce stress and increase concentration?

Levy is also looking to develop contemplative training programs at public libraries. "People go there now to read. They could also go there for tools to deal with overload and acceleration," says Levy, who earned degrees in computer science and artificial intelligence at Stanford University before moving to London to study calligraphy and bookbinding.

His role, he says, is to "bring the spirit of calligraphy to the digital age."

Levy has spent a decade asking probing questions about the growing disconnects in an age of connection. His provocative ideas have inspired articles in The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Time magazine, and The Washington Post, among others. He has appeared on CNN with Anderson Cooper, and been featured in National Public Radio's "Talk of the Nation."

In the interest of expanding research and spurring public debate, he has organized a number of big-think national discussions, including an "Information, Silence, and Sanctuary" conference at the UW in 2004 and a "Mindful Work and Technology" workshop at the Library of Congress in 2006. Last year, he organized a conference called "No Time to Think," which is also the title of his new book-in-progress. It traces the speedup of society back to the beginning of the industrial revolution.

"There has been no real slow down since then," says Levy. "The pace has just continued to increase."