Scientists are concerned that the Information Age is nurturing ‘cognitive overload,’ an umbrella term for the malaise people feel as a result of distraction, stress, multitasking, and data congestion related to increasingly sophisticated technologies.

David Levy, a professor in the University of Washington’s School of Information, believes he may have witnessed the first-ever interruption-by-e-mail. It happened back in the ’70s, when he worked at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, a think tank at the forefront of today’s computing world.

He and about 25 other technologists were watching a visiting scientist demonstrate how to make use of multiple parts of the computer screen. The visitor was typing and talking when a text popped up on one side of the screen. “Oh look,” he said, “I’ve received a message!” He typed a response, sent it into cyberspace and went back to his presentation.

It was stagecraft intended to highlight one of those ta-da! moments. But not everyone was impressed — or even pleased.

“I remember a visiting senior computer scientist from another country got very angry about it,” says Levy. “He said programming requires focus and shouldn’t be interrupted. He basically said, ‘You call this the future!’ ”

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