A friend-of-a-friend who's a university professor says he is frantic with worry: during his lectures, students are on their Blackberries or texting on phones, and he claims that he can tell, from their tests and assignments, that the quality of their attention has deteriorated.
52% of the people who responded to in a poll published in the Toronto Globe and Mail on June 1 say they are not taking holidays this summer because they are either needed at work to maintain productivity, or are frightened that if they take time off, they will be let go.
"In Defense of Distraction" by Sam Anderson in New York Magazine summarizes the effects of our over-stimulated culture. Anderson asked Dr. David Meyer, professor at the University of Michigan and one of the world's leading experts in multitasking, whether we were living through a crisis of inattention.
" 'Yes' he says immediately, then adds... 'And I think it's going to get a lot worse than people expect... people aren't aware of what's happening to their mental processes, in the same way that years ago people couldn't look into their lungs and see the residual deposit'. He said, 'None of this happened ten years ago, It was a lot calmer. There was a lot of opportunity for getting steady work done.' "
You might be thinking, I knew that, as you e-mail beeps and the four other windows on your desktop catch your eye.
But do you know that some humans, as recently as the late 19th century, semi-hibernated?
Graham Robb's historical geography, "The Discovery of France" describes life in the coldest part of that country:
"In the late 18th century France, ninety-nine percent of all human activity took place between late spring and early autumn. ...Populations in the Alps and Pyrenees simply entombed themselves until March or April, with a hay-loft above, a stable to one side and the mountain slope behind.
Farms in more temperate regions operated in clement weather from 6 am. till 7 pm., but there was a break of three hours at mid-day.
In Normandy, according to the diary of Jules Renard, 'the peasant at home moves little more than the sloth' (1889); 'in winter, they pass their lives asleep, corked up like snails' (1908).
Before roads, lighting and what Robb calls "the amazing luxury of coal and gas heating", weather tyrannized life, food was scarce for many. A large number of people did nothing for a large part of the year.
One hundred fifty years later, we in the most-developed countries have consistent comforts from one season to the next. Turn on a light and work all night. Answer your e-mail while you slip a meal into the oven, plenty of cheap calories at your elbow. Live longer, most likely, than any preceding generation.
No one would want to return to the hardships that forced people in villages and rural areas into near-hibernation, and often sentenced them to short lives (about 37 years on average in mid-19th century France). Still, it is worth remembering that the cycle for humans and animals has historically been a burst of activity followed by rest.
But life, including the part spent working, is getting ever faster, more intrusive. Dr. Eve Van Cauter, a sleep researcher and professor of medicine at the University of Chicago, cited a National Cancer Society survey survey finding that sleep time had decreased, in the last four or five decades, by 1.5 to 2 hours per day.
Does that suit you? Do you feel swept up in frenzied activity, or in control?
We have gained over forty-five years of life expectancy. Will we spend it chasing the goal of more productivity, splitting our attention and therefore our existence into tiny shards, or decide to live those years in harmony with ancient cycles of exertion and rest?