A Perspective on iPad’s Impact on Your Mind

With a potential 8.5M iPad’s sold in 2010 and projections of as many as 43.7M units sold in 2011, there is no question that this device has created quite an impact and will going forward. Some are even heralding the death of the netbook (the under $400 tiny laptops) but what I’ve not seen is any discussion about how the use of these devices is changing the way we interact with our computers and, most importantly, its impact on our minds.

The problem with using current desktop or laptop computers is that far too often we have multiple web browser windows open, each with multiple tabs for email, calendar, your blog, Facebook, Twitter and who knows what else. You’ll also have applications open (e.g., Word, Excel, Photoshop, iTunes) and be interacting with all sorts of these applications, most of which are connected to the internet.

Not only is the visual noise of all this stuff running on your screen a disruption, but when an email comes in, someone connects with you via chat, you see a tweet come in from one of your Twitter follows, or you hear a “ping” that someone has begun a Facebook chat with you, it’s a disruption that can knock you off track and off task for quite awhile.

In the scientific community there is significant research that has gone in regarding what happens in our minds when we multitask. What happens when we’re interrupted and then resume our work. How long it takes to resume our cognitive processes after being interrupted and what this does to our ability to get stuff done.

But what does this have to do with the iPad and its impact on your mind?

Dario Salvucci is an Associate Professor of Computer Science at Drexel University and has written a book called The Multitasking Mind. After discovering his research in to interruption and resumption (i.e., multitasking), I realized it was the basis for my perspective on the iPad’s unique impact on your mind:

We have developed a theory called threaded cognition that aims to explain how people multitask. The theory says that each task can be represented as a thread that weaves its way through the brain’s processing resources. Several threads can run independently, especially when there is little to no overlap in terms of the type of processing; for example, if a reading thread is using vision and a movement thread is typing, these threads can largely run without interference from each other. However, there is also a central bottleneck (called the procedural resource) that is needed by all threads, and thus limits the amount of independence between threads. This interplay between independent threads and a central bottleneck allows the theory to account for both our multitasking abilities and the limitations of those abilities.

So “threaded cognition” is what happens when you’re performing tasks on your computer. You have to keep multiple “threads” alive in your brain so that you can search for something in an email, copy it, paste it in to a report, manipulate an image, paste that in to the report, and on and on. Each of these running processes in your mind requires a thread to be “running” and takes cognitive cycles to keep alive.

Some tasks we perform don’t require much in the way of attention or effort and can be done even if interrupted, but Salvucci’s research points out that even the interruption doesn’t get the attention it deserves:

A recent theory called memory for goals says that, when interrupted, people rehearse the current mental context so that it can later be retrieved from memory when returning from an interruption. Viewed under the lens of threaded cognition, people actually multitask during an interruption: while performing the interrupting task (email, chat, whatever), they maintain a concurrent cognitive thread that performs this rehearsal of mental context. Thus, interruptions are not only disruptive for the original task, they can even be disruptive for the interrupting task due to interference from this concurrent rehearsal.

The computing model we’ve come to know and love—having lots of running applications and being able to perform numerous simultaneous tasks—has slowly-but-surely become a cognitive disruptor, especially now that more and more of our computing life is “in the cloud” and the opportunity for interruption and disruption is at a level never before seen.

Many people describe this increasing data or person interruption as the “river of news reaching flood stage“, or that they’re “drinking from a firehose of information” and recently “it’s tough to pay attention to my real-time social media stream” in describing how things have changed. If Salvucci and other’s research is any indication, the computing and online world has already gone past our capacity to manage it, make sense of it, or even be able to receive so many different types of communication streams without completely and continually disrupting our thoughts, ability to do tasks, or deeply think-through a problem or issue.

The iPad “Aha!” and Apple’s Secret Sauce?

When Steve Jobs introduced the iPad, most of we geeks, technoweenies and pundits viewed it as a big iPhone or iPod Touch which would allow us to do more on-the-go. Others saw it as a content consumption device only, good primarily for reading or watching videos or movies, but not for general computing.

As it turns out, both are probably true. As someone who tried to give up a laptop in favor of solely using the iPad for my mobile computing, I can tell you first-hand that I cannot accomplish anywhere near what I can by using multiple applications and multiple web browser tabs open with all my hosted apps running on a laptop or my desktop computer with huge display.

What I didn’t expect (and was my biggest surprise using the iPad) was experiencing a shift in how I mentally processed what I did online and how it helped to keep me on task, was “cognitively quiet” and seemed to make many of the tasks I performed significantly more enjoyable!

As an example, I’m a guy that scans 250 blogs and dozens of news sources every day. I use a newsreader (e.g., Newsgator or Google Reader) but still invest two or more hours per day staying on top of news articles and posts. Even though using a newsreader was FAR more efficient and faster than viewing each blog or site individually, it still made me weary and I sometimes just didn’t have the time to skim through 1,500 – 2,000 articles per day.

After trying a few newsreader applications on the iPad, I discovered one (Feeddler) which shrunk that 2+ hours per day down to less than one hour. Not only that, but I found myself scanning these news feeds away from my desk so I wasn’t being disrupted by email, phone calls, chats or other of the usual interruptions. It made a process that usually filled me with a bit of anxiety (“I’ve got to get through these news feeds and get to my desk!“) in to an almost pleasurable one.

The aspect of shifting my computing use was that I discovered that I don’t multitask when using the iPad. Though so-called “multitasking” capability is built-in to the current version of the iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch “iOS 4.2”, there is enough of a required conscious change to another application that I often choose not to shift and just do something later. Plus, some tasks which I do frequently (e.g., emailing a client or colleague a post or article I found that they need to read, or to “tweet” a link to one I think my followers would love) happen right inside the app itself. I no longer have to cut-n-paste to send an email or to tweet in a Twitter app like I did on my computers.

The use of the iPad (and potentially other future tablet or single purpose devices) hold the promise of being able to materially shift the way we consume and manage the explosion in data and potential disruptors and settle down our use of computing. It’s one of the things I’m tracking in 2011.

Is the iPad Apple’s Secret Sauce? I’ve come to believe that this iPad device is pointing the way toward a new paradigm of how we interact with an increasingly online world. This world is one that sees us so connected to other humans and information services—and ones increasingly delivered in real-time—that the number of disruptions we’re all facing mean that we’ll all probably be off-task most of the time, unless we use computing devices that help us focus and are geared to minimize those disruptions.

The iPad does exactly that and more. There is no question in my mind that, looking back one day on the introduction of the iPad and the explosion of like-devices in to the marketplace, we’ll be able to clearly see that they changed the way our minds handled the acceleration in data, information, social media interactions and computing in general.

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  1. Dan Farfan on January 2, 2011 at 12:03 pm

    Well done. Very valuable insight, but I disagree with the conclusion.

    “There is no question in my mind that, looking back one day on the introduction of the iPad and the explosion of like-devices in to the marketplace, we’ll be able to clearly see that they changed the way our minds handled the acceleration in data, information, social media interactions and computing in general.”

    Mobile computing devices will inspire us (the programming “haves”) to advance the way data, information, social media interactions and computer in general “function” so that they “exist” more symbiotically with the way (even programming “have not”) humans “operate.” Focus and single vs multitasking matters, but it’s not the end game, or even a hint at it, in my opinion.

    But, I’m biased. That’s a nugget from (fingers crossed) a future TED talk I’m working on. 🙂


  2. Steve Borsch on January 2, 2011 at 1:13 pm

    Thanks for reading and the kind words Dan.

    I completely agree it’s not the end game and is certainly not a be-all, end-all. The operative word in your reply, however, is “advance”. I would argue that these new device types, and how they enable we humans to interact with the online world and our applications, WILL accelerate advancements.

    Without demand (or the promise of demand) little ‘advancement’ happens. This demand will help to make the inefficient become more efficient, old media and communication methods become disrupted, and increasingly higher value social connections be augmented or solidified.

    How? By discovering the best-practice aspects of these devices (some of which I described above) and the fact that the device and its computing paradigm has intrinsic advantages that make it more advanced than what’s come before. That discovery will drive demand for the advances which you discussed.

    The proof-point is in the inherent success of the iPad itself. Why didn’t Microsoft’s tablet OS succeed? Because it was the same, noisy, multitasking and cognitively agitating paradigm on the tablet as it was with the desktop OS. IMHO, the key to the success of the iOS is in the benefits I described above.

  3. Tweets that mention A Perspective on iPad’s Impact on Your Mind -- Topsy.com on January 2, 2011 at 2:38 pm

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  4. Lowell on January 2, 2011 at 1:53 pm

    I think you’ve hit on something very important here, @Steve
    Borsch – and @Dario Salvucci. From what I’ve learned thru studying
    some neuroscience is that part of our brain we call on to manage
    all those tasks, the pre-frontal cortex, just cannot keep up with
    all of that. It is evolution-wise young and tiny and it gets
    exhausted quickly. Finding a way to stay focused on just one or two
    tasks will result in greater effectiveness and less negative stress
    on our bodies. Steve Jobs may have helped humanity through an
    unintended consequence of this iPad limitation. One trick which
    works for me is to hide all distractions. When I think of a
    distraction I make a note about where I left off, I make a quick
    note of the distraction, and then get back to where I left off. Not
    a hi-tech solution, but a good one.

  5. lynn fellman on January 3, 2011 at 5:45 pm

    This is an extended version a concept I heard you talk about two months ago. You’ve detailed it and thought it through very nicely. Perhaps this is the “most profound” insight that we didn’t have to for on the radio. If so, I’m sorry the audience missed this nugget from you.

  6. Niels Taatgen on March 8, 2011 at 3:27 pm

    You have some interesting observations about working with the iPad that mirror my own: sometimes the lack of multitasking gets in the way of productivity (especially pre 4.2), but sometimes it keeps you focussed by making it more expensive to switch to distracting applications (e.g., email, facebook, etc.).
    One thing to keep in mind is that there is not necessarily a one-on-one mapping between cognitive threads and applications. If I need to consult a pdf-file while working on a paper, this involves two applications on the computer, but only a single cognitive thread in my head. On the other hand, if I have a tab in my browser with a page on the news and one on facebook, they may correspond to two different cognitive threads. When we designed threaded cognition, we had not only computer applications in mind, but any real-life combination of tasks (for example, driver distraction).

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About Steve Borsch

Strategist. Learner. Idea Guy. Salesman. Connector of Dots. Friend. Husband & Dad. CEO. Janitor. More here.

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Podcasting hit the mainstream in July of 2005 when Apple added podcast show support within iTunes. I'd seen this coming so started podcasting in May of 2005 and kept going until August of 2007. Unfortunately was never 'discovered' by national broadcasters, but made a delightfully large number of connections with people all over the world because of these shows. Click here to view the archive of my podcast posts.