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How do we protect deep thought in a distracted age?

by Joe Kaczrowski | May 08, 2015

That was the question left by the keynote speaker at this year's ABA TECHSHOW in Chicago, Nick Carr.  The question was posed to hundreds of attorneys but extends beyond those in attendance. Carr has written extensively on automation and culture. A common theme is that while technology is designed to remove the mundane tasks from humans freeing them up for higher level thought and allowing them to focus on more complex tasks, the opposite actually seems to be true. Technology has not turned blue collar workers into philosophers and artisans but rather a society of Homer Simpsons, simply pushing buttons and letting machines handle complex tasks with little or no understanding or human interaction.

Automation is all around us. Tasks many thought safely within the domain of "humans required" now require little or no human involvement. Autopilot is a widely accepted technology, and self-driving cars don't seem that far off either. Suffolk University professor Andrew Perlman also relayed an example of automated dispute resolution.

Basic skills once thought critical are now afterthoughts at best. With e-signatures, email, texting, word processors, and so forth, cursive writing has been dropped by several schools. (Will we return to the days of yore when signatories were merely asked to "make your mark"?) Calculators have long been a thorn in the side of math instructors. ("Why do I need to learn long division if I can just press a button on my watch?") Even programs seemingly designed to reward math skills have given way to the technological tsunami.

Skills near and dear to a lawyer's heart, legal research, have been greatly impacted by technology. Leather-bound law books, once a staple of every law practice, are now purchased by the foot for aesthetic reasons. More generally, the internet and search engines have made encyclopedias and memorization obsolete. One of Carr's most circulated essays, Is Google Making Us Stupid?, explores the effect of the internet on society. Schooling your buddies at bar trivia doesn't have quite the same cachet in the smartphone era.

Robert A. Heinlein said, “Progress isn’t made by early risers. It’s made by lazy men trying to find easier ways to do something.” While laziness can in some instances lead to innovation, if we outsource too much to our technological creations we run the risk of a future on the Axiom, or one of the more dystopian futures dominated by malevolent AI's or killer robots.

But that's only half the equation. Great technological innovations are generally intended to improve efficiency or make tasks easier. Henry Ford's assembly line reduced the time required to produce a car from over twelve hours to just two and a half hours. Automation increased productivity, allowing Ford to dramatically increase his production volume and reduce cost. But what effect does automation have on human workers?

Technology in theory allows people to move beyond mundane tasks and focus on higher thinking. But technology also has increased distractions. Car radios, a standard feature for decades, were (and arguably still are) considered a leading cause of distracted driving. Add to that cell phones, GPS, satellite radio, texting, and so forth, and a relatively simple, everyday task becomes more interesting to say the least.

Another casualty of increased screen time is literature. Few people read a newspaper every day or subscribe to a magazine. Many people used to read a book in bed, but that has now given way to one last email check or a Facebook update. Screen time before bed is soundly discouraged for its deleterious affect on the quality of sleep, but many teens have also experienced the are-you-sure-this-isn't-April-Fool's-Day phenomenon of sleep-texting.

But even in meetings (and court hearings), our attention is often divided. Lawyers may check their email, or try to quickly look up a case through the Fastcase app. In meetings it is not uncommon to see a majority of people swiping a cell phone screen and/or typing away on a laptop or tablet. Distracted attendees at continuing education programs used to be obvious, with either a newspaper or binders and law books spread out before them; now news, research and more is available in the palm of their hands.

Forgetting your phone at home (or the office) often leaves one feeling unsettled or disconnected. Being out of cell range on a road trip can be a life-threatening scenario. Not only do most people not carry a paper map, but they also rely on their cars and phones to tell them where they are and which direction they are heading.

People joke about unplugging or "going off the grid," but in this era of uber-connectedness and instant gratification have we lost the desire (or ability) to sit quietly and think? To contemplate who we are? Or ask that great philosophical question: why?

The road trip, an American tradition, used to be nothing but you and the open highway, wind blowing in your hair. A great time to reflect, to see the USA in your Chevrolet. Now you have hundreds of channels of satellite programming, integrated hands-free phone systems, dictated email and text messaging, Siri, Cortana, the list goes on. Similarly, camping used to be a way to commune with nature, escape the hustle and bustle of modern life. Even working out is not distraction free. Back in the day you may have heard some Metallica or AC/DC attempting to drown out the grunts and clanking weights, but now you have iPods, cellphones, tablets, and dozens of televisions competing for your attention.

Not only has technology created more competition for our attention, but human nature further complicates the situation through the impulse to multitask.The myth of multitasking stems from the belief that we are inherently so busy we need to address several competing interests simultaneously. Yet multitasking generally does not lead to increased efficiency but rather is simply the performance of several tasks done concurrently and poorly.

People today often feel they are too busy, but there is a competing belief that the real issue is the level of distraction prevalent in the world today. Whether it's meditation or sitting on the deck with a beer, can you resist the temptation and go an hour (or two) without checking your phone? The impulse to check a smartphone has replaced daydreaming. Will technology through its distracting nature lead to the decline of innovation?

And so Carr left the TECHSHOW audience with the question, how do we protect deep thought in a distracted age? As technology leads us further and further away from The Thinker and quiet moments of contemplation, and new developments and innovations place more demands on our time and attention, will people carve out time to daydream or contemplate the meaning of life? With computers and machinery usurping even complex tasks from humans, can workers still find satisfaction and meaning in their careers? Like Homer, will we use old technology (like a broom or drinking bird) to "outsmart" our automated systems?

The risk with automation is that rather than freeing workers up for more complex tasks and deep thought automation actually leads to greater passivity and loss of attentiveness. To get to our Roddenberry future of explorers and philosophers, technology and automation cannot lose its human element. Humans must remain an essential component of the process.

Lawyers can gain greater process efficiency and dramatically increase their effective hourly rates through automation tools like mndocs, but Carr reminds us to heed the advice from Uncle Ben: with great power comes great responsibility. Technology offers lawyers many tools to improve efficiency and decrease time on task, but what individuals do with that additional time will ultimately determine its value.