What's happening in the digital world? This:
These are the growth curves for: blogs worldwide; subscribers to massive multiplayer online games; song downloads from the iTunes music store; number of Wikipedia articles (in all languages); and Skype users. The graphs are not in this order, but that doesn't really matter. What matters is the shape of the curves: the digital world is growing exponentially.
How far can this rate of growth continue? Given that, depending on the surveys, only 15 or so percent of the world's population uses the Internet, there is still room. But let's keep a narrow view on our Western media-overexposed reality. I'm generally mistrustful of enthusiastic forecasts: if we had to sum up all the 10-years growth projections in fix/mobile phone usage, mobile TV, IM, e-mail, online and offline games, blogs and vlogs, iPod/podcasts, social networking, digital/interactive television, satellite radio, movies and DVDs, wikipedia contributions, interactive advertising, online content creation, and more, by all standard math we would need significantly longer days.
But clearly we are at a juncture. Historically, "new" media have generally taken some time away from the "old" while concurrently increasing the overall time spent consuming media. So, to say it simply, television meant a bit less newspaper reading, and the arrival of the internet induced a bit less televiewing, while all of the above nibbled away at other, non-media, occupations: social life, sleep, hobbies, sports, sex.
Now however, we seem to be hitting a limit in terms of expanding the overall media usage: there are no more hours left. For some people, that's starting to mean clear-cut choices: giving up one medium for the other (I had a fabulous dinner discussion the other day with two families - parents entrepreneurs and teacher - who gave up television and newspapers, and kept the Internet and the DVD player). Other play the efficiency card: disciplined usage, more selective strategies, new technology to help manage the overload induced by technology. And many, particularly teenagers and young adults, bet on the M-word: multitasking - simultaneously using several media: reading a book while sending SMS with the iPod piping music in their ears, watching a DVD while chatting on IM and googling info for a report, and so on.
I'm bringing this up because I've been catching up on some reading and found an insightful article published a couple of months ago by Time on the "Generation M". it quotes a survey done in 2005 by the Kaiser foundation, which found that kids 8 to 18 are not spending a larger chunk of time using electronic media - that is holding steady at 6.5 hours a day - but that, by multitasking, they are packing more media consumption/creation in that time: the equivalent of 8.5 hours. In other words, multitasking extends their day to 26 hours.
Multitasking has implications. For example, during the recent MediaX conference at Stanford, professor Cliff Nass (from Stanford's Dept of Communication) said that he has been suggesting corporations to run more realistic usability testing on their electronic and software products (starting with their websites), with subjects juggling tasks and technologies, because "that's the world where their software lives in now".
The next question obviously is: How does the brain handle multitasking? "Basically, it doesn't", answers the Time article. And here are some excerpts that explain why:
It may seem that a teenage girl is writing an instant message, burning a CD and telling her mother that she's doing homework -- all at the same time -- but what's really going on is a rapid toggling among tasks rather than simultaneous processing. (..) The switching of attention from one task to another, the toggling action, occurs in a region [of the brain that is] "important for maintaining long-term goals and achieving them," Grafman explains. "The most anterior part allows you to leave something when it's incomplete and return to the same place and continue from there." This gives us a "form of multitasking," he says, though it's actually sequential processing. Because the prefrontal cortex is one of the last regions of the brain to mature and one of the first to decline with aging, young children do not multitask well, and neither do most adults over 60. New fMRI studies at Toronto's Rotman Research Institute suggest that as we get older, we have more trouble "turning down background thoughts when turning to a new task." (...)
But the ability to multiprocess has its limits, even among young adults. When people try to perform two or more related tasks either at the same time or alternating rapidly between them, errors go way up, and it takes far longer -- often double the time or more -- to get the jobs done than if they were done sequentially, says David E. Meyer, director of the Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory at the University of Michigan: "The toll in terms of slowdown is extremely large--amazingly so." Meyer frequently tests Gen M students in his lab, and he sees no exception for them, despite their "mystique" as master multitaskers. "The bottom line is that you can't simultaneously be thinking about your tax return and reading an essay, just as you can't talk to yourself about two things at once," he says. (...)
Other research shows the relationship between stimulation and performance forms a bell curve: a little stimulation -- whether it's coffee or a blaring soundtrack -- can boost performance, but too much is stressful and causes a fall-off. In addition, the brain needs rest and recovery time to consolidate thoughts and memories. Teenagers who fill every quiet moment with a phone call or some kind of e-stimulation may not be getting that needed reprieve. Habitual multitasking may condition their brain to an overexcited state, making it difficult to focus even when they want to. "People lose the skill and the will to maintain concentration, and they get mental antsyness," says Meyer.
The same issue of the magazine carries a viewpoint by my friend Steven Johnson (author of "Everything bad is good for you") inviting parents "not to fear the digital". He balances out the main article by suggesting that:
Any time a new technology comes along, an implicit cost-benefit analysis gets made. The trouble with the current debate about Generation M is that we have a phalanx of experts lined up to measure the costs but only a vague, intuitive sense of the benefits. (...) Is all this screen time diminishing the kids' face-to-face social skills? Hardly. Remember, the total number of hours spent in front of a screen has not increased over the past 10 years. Teenagers are irrepressibly social animals; it's in their DNA. They're not using the technology to replace their real-world social life; they're using technology to augment it.
Another way of seeing it, is that they're using their digital life to keep track of their real-world life.
The crucial trend is not the number of hours teenagers spend in front of the screen but rather the dramatic increase in cognitive engagement that the screen demands of them. (...) I believe this dramatic spike in digital participation is, for the most part, sharpening the minds of Generation M, not dumbing them down. But it's hard to see that improvement without the right yardstick. The skills they're developing are not trivial. They're learning to analyze complex systems with many interacting variables, to master new interfaces, to find and validate information in vast databases, to build and maintain extensive social networks crossing both virtual and real-world environments, to adapt existing technology to new uses. (...)
And to ask questions and take quick decisions - all things well-attuned to the modern world. I remember Steven talking about books at a conference last year, and saying: “Books are a fundamental learning tool, but what decisions does a reader need to make? The author made them all already”. Which is certainly not to say that books should be shed - rather to suggest that it's the nature of the media that's changing, not only their quantity, and that casting books (et al.) and the Internet (et al.) as antagonists won't help us understand the radical reshuffle of media habits that's underway.