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The Attention Crisis: And you Thought the Economic Crisis was Bad

05/10/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

"I am so broke, I can't even pay attention." -- Jimi Hendrix

Along with the billions of dollars lost in our economic crisis, there is also a bankruptcy of another sort occurring in our culture: a deficit of attention.

The Crisis: Sorry, I Have No Time for You if You Are Not Digital

How many times have you been eating lunch with a friend or colleague, and as soon as his or her cell phone rang, without a moment's thought and not even knowing who was calling, he or she immediately vacated your in-person conversation to have a digital one? As a result, you are left abandoned, relegated to a secondary citizen all because . . . well, you are actually there in person. As a live non-digital means of communication, you just don't cut it. Now, if this has never happened to you, please continue to enjoy living alone on that remote island in the pacific. . . .

And this not only occurs at lunches. Parents may still physically show up to their child's soccer or basketball games, but today they are less mentally present at them. They come equipped with Blackberries, iPhones, Kindles, and sometimes even laptops, believing they cannot afford to give an hour's worth of their scarce and valuable attention to their child's game. With their gadgets always within hands-reach, at any moment of boredom they can mentally leave the game to post on Twitter, read Facebook updates, or text a friend. However, when their child looks up to the stands expecting to see a smile on her parent's face after she made a basket or scored a shot, she too often finds her parent, head down, texting or reading updates on his or her phone, mentally AWAL from the gym or soccer field. The message to the child: other items deserve my attention more than you do; my body is here, but I cannot afford to give you my attention as well.

The Stream: Just a Minute, a Cat Somewhere in the World is Rolling Over!

It is one thing, of course, if there is an accident that needs an immediate response, but more and more our attention is drawn away not by emergencies but by sites like Twitter and the status update section on Facebook, where people are giving short updates to the question, "What are you doing?" Users fill in the blank. What answers might we expect?

Famed blogger Guy Kawasaki, who has about 100,000 followers on Twitter, recently told the New York Times, "Basically, for 99.9 percent of people on Twitter, it is about updating friends and colleagues about how the cat rolled over."

Now, my experience on Twitter has been different than Kawasaki's. While there are certainly plenty of updates about how cats roll over (for the record, I have nothing against cats, and they can roll over in cute ways, but I only have so much time to read about them) many people are also using Twitter in very creative ways, including directly sharing and discussing news.

However, most of the information on these sites is hard to call pressing. It was major news some time back that Twitter reported a plane crash minutes before any of the major news sites did, since people were updating to Twitter from their phones on the plane. But unless by some odd chance we have a friend or loved one on that plane (and can actually do something in that moment to help them) do we really need to know that information "right now," instead of later that evening? Could it be that our need to know at all times what is happening in the world, including the lives of our friend's cats, is making us less present for the rest of our life? So we post from our cell phone to friends on Facebook or followers on Twitter that we are watching our child play basketball and we read that someone else somewhere in the world is also watching his or her child play basketball. "Wow," we think, "this is pretty cool," but the irony is that in the time spent posting and reading, both people are mentally absent from each game!

The Challenge: We Can Be Interrupted, but Can We Live Not Interrupted?

Don't get me wrong; there is a time for communication through Twitter, Facebook, cell phones, and text messaging. I use these almost everyday. There are also times we need to take a call on our cell or respond to an email while with friends or family. However, the question is not "Is there a time and place for these?" but, "Is there a time and place not for these?" Is there anytime when our attention should not be disrupted by constant updates and information? Can we no longer enjoy a dinner with our kids or watch a child's game because we continue to vacate the conversation via technology; can we no longer listen to a friend needing support because after he or she speaks for more than 140 characters, we find ourselves unable to sustain our focus? Is our need to be constantly connected draining one of our most valuable resources: our attention?

This is not just a concern to light users of technology; even those in the technology community are starting to get worried.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt said in a recent interview with Charlie Rose: "I worry that the level of interrupt, right, this sort of overwhelming rapidity of information -- and especially of stressful information -- is in fact affecting cognition. It is in fact affecting deeper thinking."

I plan to continue to use my cell phone, and sites like Facebook and Twitter, but I also see how focused attention and deeper thinking are becoming scarce commodities, as our awareness is continually drawn away by our gadgets. And we are not the only ones impacted. Through watching adults continually distracted by and at the mercy of their cell phones and other technologies, children get the message that our attention no longer matters, that listening deeply to someone is no longer important, that showing up mentally as well as physically at a child's game is no longer needed, and that it is enough to have our body in a room without needing our mind there as well.

So while the country is focused intently on the economic crisis, another crisis looms, which could be even more devastating. Our attention is also nearing bankruptcy, and needs just as thorough a restructuring.

Feel free to let us know below: "Have you felt or experienced the impacts of the attention crisis yet?"

SOREN GORDHAMER works with individuals and groups on ways to live with less stress and more effectiveness in our technology-rich lives. He is the author of Wisdom 2.0: Ancient Secrets for the Creative and Constantly Connected (HarperOne, 2009). Website: http://www.sorengordhamer.com.