HIS is Charles Lax's brain on speed.
Mr. Lax, a 44-year-old venture capitalist, is sitting in a
conference for telecommunications executives at a hotel near Los
Angeles, but he is not all here. Out of one ear, he listens to a
live presentation about cable television technology; simultaneously,
he surfs the Net on a laptop with a wireless connection, while
occasionally checking his mobile device part phone, part pager and
part Internet gadget for e-mail.
Mr. Lax flew from Boston and paid $2,000 to attend the
conference, called Vortex. But he cannot unwire himself long enough
to give the presenters his complete focus. If he did, he would face
a fate worse than lack of productivity: he would become bored.
"It's hard to concentrate on one thing," he said, adding: "I
think I have a condition."
The ubiquity of technology in the lives of executives, other
businesspeople and consumers has created a subculture of the Always
On and a brewing tension between productivity and freneticism. For
all the efficiency gains that it seemingly provides, the constant
stream of data can interrupt not just dinner and family time, but
also meetings and creative time, and it can prove very tough to turn
Some people who are persistently wired say it is not uncommon for
them to be sitting in a meeting and using a hand-held device to
exchange instant messages surreptitiously with someone in the same
meeting. Others may be sitting at a desk and engaging in
conversation on two phones, one at each ear. At social events, or in
the grandstand at their children's soccer games, they read news
feeds on mobile devices instead of chatting with actual human
These speed demons say they will fall behind if they disconnect,
but they also acknowledge feeling something much more powerful: they
are compulsively drawn to the constant stimulation provided by
incoming data. Call it O.C.D. online compulsive disorder.
"It's magnetic," said Edward M. Hallowell, a psychiatry
instructor at Harvard. "It's like a tar baby: the more you touch it,
the more you have to."
Dr. Hallowell and John Ratey, an associate professor at Harvard
and a psychiatrist with an expertise in attention deficit disorder,
are among a growing number of physicians and sociologists who are
assessing how technology affects attention span, creativity and
focus. Though many people regard multitasking as a social annoyance,
these two and others are asking whether it is counterproductive, and
The pair have their own term for this condition: pseudo-attention
deficit disorder. Its sufferers do not have actual A.D.D., but,
influenced by technology and the pace of modern life, have developed
shorter attention spans. They become frustrated with long-term
projects, thrive on the stress of constant fixes of information, and
physically crave the bursts of stimulation from checking e-mail or
voice mail or answering the phone.
"It's like a dopamine squirt to be connected," said Dr. Ratey,
who compares the sensations created by constantly being wired to
those of narcotics a hit of pleasure, stimulation and escape. "It
takes the same pathway as our drugs of abuse and pleasure."
"It's an addiction," he said, adding that some people cannot deal
with down time or quiet moments. "Without it, we are in withdrawal."
ACCORDING to research compiled by David E. Meyer, a
psychology professor at the University of Michigan, multitaskers
actually hinder their productivity by trying to accomplish two
things at once. Mr. Meyer has found that people who switch back and
forth between two tasks, like exchanging e-mail and writing a
report, may spend 50 percent more time on those tasks than if they
work on them separately, completing one before starting the
As a result, Mr. Meyer said, businesspeople who multitask "are
making themselves worse businesspeople."
He says little research has been done into why some people are
compulsively drawn to multitasking. But he theorizes that the allure
has several layers. Multitasking offers a guise of productivity, a
"macho" show of accomplishment, and similarities to a quick
"It's related to what happens to skydivers or jet pilots," he
said. "They put themselves in situations where, if they don't
perform at peak efficiency, they'll crash and burn. In the aftermath
there is a rush of chemicals."
Patrick P. Gelsinger, the chief technology officer at Intel,
says it is clear that the overall time spent in front of screens
whether desktop computers or hand-held devices is rising. "Time
spent watching television is down," he said. "But over all you see a
discretionary increase in the amount of time people are connected to
The presence of such devices, as well as their power, will only
grow. Networks that provide wireless Internet access are in their
early stages. Intel has put the full force of its science and
marketing effort behind wireless devices and the superfast miniature
microprocessors that power them.
Intel portrays computers as pushing productivity, and Mr.
Gelsinger scoffs at the idea that digital devices have a compulsive
or physically addictive draw. "We don't make drugs," he said. "We
make technology building blocks that move the world forward in all
But he concedes that there can be a point at which the constant
accessibility of information is hard to escape.
In one meeting at Intel, Mr. Gelsinger said he found himself
sending an instant message to his boss across the room a potential
distraction, though he argued that by doing so, he did not have to
engage in "disruptive whispering." At other times, Mr. Gelsinger has
had to remind himself not to use e-mail on his laptop during a
meeting because it can send the message that he is not paying full
SOMETIMES, discipline must be imposed from the outside. At a
recent technology conference organized by The Wall Street Journal
and attended by industry heavyweights like Bill Gates of Microsoft,
Steve Jobs of Apple
Computer and Stephen M. Case of AOL
Time Warner, people were discouraged from using their wireless
Internet access during presentations.
Bucking the recent tradition at trade shows and technology
conferences, the organizers decided not to provide wireless Internet
access inside the conference.
"We wanted people to absorb what the speakers were saying," said
Walt Mossberg, a technology columnist at The Journal.
"We decided that if you have Wi-Fi, it would be destructive," he
added. "If you have the Internet, it will win out. People imagine
they can multitask, but sometimes people overestimate the extent to
which they can do it."
If multitasking creates a problem for people, the cause is not
the gadget makers themselves, said Jeff Hallock, the senior director
for consumer products at Sprint
PCS, the mobile telephone carrier. The company has been selling
the manna of multitasking: phones that can also take digital
pictures, send e-mail and instant messages and download music. But
Mr. Hallock says those functions help people stay organized, not
make them frenetic.
"We're enhancing people's lives so they can have more control of
the flurry of activity that's seemingly coming in," he said.
"You don't have to check your voice mail," he added. "We're
giving you the chance to do so."
The notion that using all these devices creates a harmful
addiction is absurd to Bruce P. Mehlman, assistant commerce
secretary for technology policy and a former executive at Cisco
Systems. Mr. Mehlman said the presence of many gadgets in
people's lives created not a cacophony, but harmony and balance.
Mobile phones, wireless Internet devices and laptops have
liberated executives, he said, allowing them to leave the office and
to spend more time at home. The users of these technologies are
constantly wired, he said, but to a very positive goal.
"Ten years ago, you had to be in the office 12 hours," said Mr.
Mehlman, who said he now spent 10 hours a day at work, giving him
more time with his wife and three children, while also making use of
his wireless-enabled laptop, BlackBerry and mobile phone.
"I get to help my kids get dressed, feed them breakfast, give
them a bath and read them stories at night," he said. He can also
have Lego air fights a game in which he and his 5-year-old son
have imaginary dogfights with Lego airplanes.
Both love the game, and it has an added benefit for Dad: he can
play with one hand while using the other to talk on the phone or
check e-mail. The multitasking maneuver occasionally requires a
trick: although Mr. Mehlman usually lets his son win the Lego air
battles, he sometimes allows himself to win, which forces his son to
spend a few minutes putting his plane back together.
"While he rebuilds his plane, I check my e-mail on the
BlackBerry," Mr. Mehlman explained.
Mr. Lax, too, cannot pass up the chance to use every bit of
technology that comes his way. A graduate of Boston University who
lives outside Boston, he is managing general partner at GrandBanks
Capital, a venture investment firm. He serves on the boards of three
companies, working to turn them into successful ventures. "I build
companies one customer at a time," he said, adding that his
investments are up against other well-financed competitors. "It's a
race against time."
Mr. Lax uses technology to keep up. He is, by his own admission,
On his office desk is a land-line telephone, a mobile phone, a
laptop computer connected to several printers, and a television,
often tuned to CNN or CNBC. At his side is the aptly named Sidekick,
a mobile device that serves as camera, calendar, address book,
instant-messaging gadget and fallback phone. It can browse the
Internet and receive e-mail. He has been known to pick it up
whenever it chirps at him and he acknowledges having used it to
check e-mail while in the men's restroom.
There is no down time in the car, either. "I talk on the phone,
but I have a headset," Mr. Lax said. Does he do anything else, like
using his Sidekick to read e-mail? "I won't be quoted as saying what
else I do because it could get me arrested," he said, laughing.
Mr. Lax said he loved the constant stimulation. "It's instant
gratification," he said, and it staves off boredom. "I use it when
I'm in a waiting situation if I'm standing in line, waiting to be
served for lunch, or getting takeout coffee at Starbucks.
And, my God, at the airport it's disastrous to have to wait there.
"Being able to send an e-mail in real time is just " Mr. Lax
paused. "Can you hold for a second? My other line is ringing."
When he returned, he said he shared this way of working with many
venture capitalists. "We all suffer a kind of A.D.D," he said. "It's
a bit of a joke, but it's true. We are easily bored. We have lots of
things going on at the same time."
The technology gives him a way to direct his excess energy. "It
is a kind of Ritalin," he said, referring to the drug commonly taken
by people with attention deficit disorder.
BUT he said technology dependence could have its down side.
"I'm in meetings all the time with people who are focused on what
they're doing on their computers, not on the presentation," he said.
During the Vortex telecommunications conference, held in May in
Dana Point, Calif., he and dozens of others were using wireless
Internet access. He said that he was paying attention to the
speaker, using his Internet connection to look up information about
the cable industry.
"I was supporting the effort of the speaker by figuring the
elements he was talking about," Mr. Lax said. He paused. "I was also
doing e-mail so I guess I wasn't giving 100 percent," he added. "I
was 40 percent supporting the effort, and 60 percent doing other
Indeed, he said, the technology can be a bit distracting. "But
it's not a problem," he said. "Being able to process lots of data
allows me to be more efficient and productive."
"It allows me to accelerate success."