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Dr. Jon LaPook

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Is Technological Multitasking Ruining Our Communication?

Posted: 07/11/11 02:27 PM ET

When I was a boy, my sisters and I tried stringing two paper cups together to see if we could talk to each other through the vibrating, taut string. We were only about 10 feet apart and it was hard to tell if we were hearing each other through the cups or through the air. The main point wasn't the conversation; it was the cool technology. After all, who in his or her right mind uses a communicating device when somebody is in earshot?

Do I even need to answer that? Apparently, the answer is "yes."

A little more than a year ago, I was having dinner with my dear friend, Deborah Berke, a world-renowned architect. She was fed up even before we had taken a single bite. That morning, she had caught two of her young architects furiously texting each other -- about 6 feet from each other. She and her partners decided to limit texting, e-mail, Internet use and multitasking. The rules? You can check e-mail each morning, again at lunch and once more before you leave for the day. Internet use is only for research. And no multitasking! Easier said than done.

Producer Sally Rosen and I shot "before" and "after" footage for the CBS Evening News. Initially, the employees were skeptical. How can you let e-mail sit unanswered for hours? How can you not text? But they all agreed to give it a shot.

When I returned almost a year later, every employee without exception called the experiment a success. The new rules made it easier for them to get into "the zone." Deborah explained to me that, for an architect, getting into the zone means being able to close your eyes and be inside a building, walking down the hallways, imagining every detail. "How long does it take to really get into the zone?" I asked. The reply was surprisingly uniform from the architects I interviewed: about two hours -- time they now had since they weren't consumed by digital juggling.

The youngest architects rediscovered this thing called "the telephone." It turns out, they explained, it's like 50 emails back and forth -- all at once. And you can tell by people's tone whether they're being sarcastic or serious, or what kind of day they're having. The nuance of conversation returned as they found themselves talking more on the phone to clients and more in person to each other.

The biggest surprise was that mentoring improved. Young architects could now overhear the phone conversations of their older colleagues, learn how they spoke to their clients, how they handled difficult situations. It beat reading a CC'ed e-mail, hands down.

For perspective, I interviewed Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. He told me some companies have tried to limit the use of e-mail but he hadn't heard of an experiment such as the one Deborah Berke had pulled off. He explained, "I think that finally there is a bit of a backlash happening. People are beginning to realize you sacrifice something, you lose something when you are always connected, when you are always multitasking when you are always shifting your focus. I hope that a countermovement, a counterculture, gains strength and begins to influence the way people act."

As I use my computer to finish typing the last few sentences of this blog and prepare to beam it into cyberspace, I understand that technology is now deeply woven into the fabric of my life. I love it as much as the next guy -- probably more. In the 1980s, I completed a fellowship in medical computing, helped create one of the world's first electronic textbooks of medicine and wrote the software that runs my medical practice. I have more gizmos than I can wave a stick at. But bit by bit -- and byte by byte -- I'm learning that when we become enthralled with technology, we can let it dictate how we behave. Deborah Berke recognized that, recoiled, and is grabbing back control.

Harnessing technology means just that -- putting a harness on it, not letting it run wild.

WATCH the segment about Deborah Berke's experiment that aired on CBS Evening News: