In December 2012 I posted a blog, reflecting on my experience with Facebook and other social media under the title of Is the Web Driving Us Mad? Where I wrote:

“The other day, I “Successfully” de-activated my Facebook account. I say “Successfully”, because Facebook does not make it easy to say good bye, even though I was just trying a short-term separation and not a divorce! At least for now. {Since then, I have now permanently deleted myself from Facebook}

You know, given human weaknesses to addiction, that is any form of addiction, I thought I was watching me and watching you to see if you were watching me, a bit too much: Watching who likes or unlike whatever I post there. As if one click here or there is enough for me to know how good or bad I am doing!

My mind was going “digital” and I was becoming “virtual”: And I said to myself, Hey Kamran, watch where you are going man!

I thought I needed a time out, a time for some reflection and soul-searching. I do not know if you, too, are facing the same or not.”…

That was December 2012. Today I was very saddened to learn about the untimely death of the respected sociologist, Clifford Nass, who had conducted pioneering research into how humans interact with technology and found that it was robbing us of the ability to concentrate, analyse or even feel empathy.

Clifford was born on April 3 1958 and died on November 2 2013, from an apparent heart attack whilst on a hiking holiday. At the time of his death Clifford was a sociology professor at Stanford University.

Today I read his obitury in The Telgraph and due to its significant relevance to what I had written last year, I have copied it below for your reflection.

Clifford Nass - Obituary

Clifford Nass was a sociologist who argued that digital multitasking makes us less sociable, less efficient and less clever

Clifford Nass, who has died aged 55, was an American academic whose observations on the ways people interact with computers and other digital devices revealed much about modern social and working life.

His findings dealt an old-fashioned hammer-blow to the idea that the proliferation of screens at every turn — be they PCs, laptops, tablets, televisions or even satnavs — is necessarily a “good thing”.

In particular Nass singled out the ubiquitous smartphone, which encourages users to multitask by juggling different “apps” while Tweeting, making or receiving calls, checking emails, monitoring social media, playing games and surfing the internet all at once. “It is not physiologically healthy for you,” he declared, “because [humans] are not built to do a multitude of tasks at one time. Your phone makes you feel like you have to respond, which then increases your stress and harms your cognitive thinking.”

A sociology professor at Stanford University, Nass conducted pioneering research into how humans interact with technology and found that it was robbing us of the ability to concentrate, analyse or even feel empathy. He diagnosed young people of the Twitter era as suffering from “emotion atrophy” as a result of insufficient face-to-face “practice in observing and experiencing true emotions”.

Far from making people sharper, jumping around from emailing to texting to posting on social media can scramble the brain, Nass concluded. “People who multitask all the time show worse thinking abilities in every dimension that we know of.”

In the course of a quarter of a century of studying people’s attempts to keep pace with constantly changing technology, Nass found that people who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory, or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time.

Nor did he find that multitasking made us more efficient. In a study in 2009 Nass and his colleagues tested the notion that people who frequently juggled computer, phone or television screens, displayed some special skill at filtering out irrelevant information, or efficiently switched between tasks .

But he was shocked by the results: “It turns out multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking. They’re terrible at ignoring irrelevant information; they’re terrible at keeping information in their head nicely and neatly organised; and they’re terrible at switching from one task to another.” Curiously, Nass himself was an exception to the rule. A colleague described him as the greatest multitasker in the world. Contrary to his own research, “it only made him smarter”.

Nass’s research confirmed what every parent of a certain age has long suspected: that the modern appetite for more and more screen time can shorten attention spans and impair concentration. Last year, at an event organised by Stanford’s Centre for Advanced Study in the Behavioural Sciences, Nass pointed to research showing that teenage girls who spent endless hours watching videos and multitasking with digital devices tended to be less successful with social and emotional development than their counterparts who spent more time interacting face-to-face with friends, even if they too were also heavy users of media.

“We’ve got to make face-to-face time sacred,” he concluded, “and we have to bring back the saying we used to hear all the time, and now never hear: 'Look at me when I talk to you’.”

Clifford Ivar Nass was born on April 3 1958 in Teaneck, New Jersey, and graduated in Mathematics at Princeton in 1981 before joining the computer firm Intel, where he worked on the development of the 286 processing chip. He became increasingly interested in sociology, and particularly people’s interaction with technology. In 1986 he joined the staff at Stanford and was later appointed professor of communication.

His early research explored the idea that humans relate to technological devices socially, and treat computers as if they were people. Users, he found, felt flattered when they were praised by computerised voices. As new media proliferated, he noted how addicts preferred to retreat to the comfort of texting rather than deal with potential emotional connection (and conflict) with those in the same room. He was startled when a student explained why she was texting her boyfriend down the hall. “It’s more efficient,” she told him.

Nass founded the university’s Communication Between Humans and Interactive Media Lab, and was co-director of Stanford’s Centre for Automotive Research into communication within and between the cars of the future. His work on the computerised voices of satellite navigation systems demonstrated that most people prefer to take directions from a male synthetic voice. He noted that in the late 1990s BMW had to recall its 5 Series cars in Germany when men complained that the “voice” was female.

In his spare time he was also an accomplished magician.

Clifford Nass, who died of an apparent heart attack on a hiking holiday, was divorced. His partner, Barbara Pugliese, and his son survive him.

Clifford Nass, born April 3 1958, died November 2 2013

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