SPP: Let’s go ahead and get started. Thank you for being on the podcast. As I mentioned we do try and get a feel for your background and your passions and how it is you got to be where you are. So could you kind of just give me a quick synopsis of what you do now and then how it is that you got there?
Cathy: Okay. I’m a professor at Duke University and my home discipline is English but I’ve never been a typical English professor. My interest in what I guess you would say my academic interest is in the last great information age, which was at the time of the American Revolution when dean powered presses and machine made paper and ink made books available to middle class and working class people for the first time in history.
And many of the founding fathers and others were very worried about what it would do to attention and distraction and productive labor and violence amongst youth and sexual promiscuity around youth to have them be reading all these wild things called Novels, which were the art form of the middle classes made possible by mass printing. And when people started getting upset about video games and the internet and social networking and saying it ruined our attention and caused distraction and made people unproductive and led youth astray and was leading this sexual promiscuity, and violent, and etc, etc. I said to him “Well that sounds familiar.”
So the background that intellectually is probably most relevant to my book now you see it is exactly this having done many years of research on the previous information age I then knew what questions to ask about the present one. I was a Vice Publisher at Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke and was the R&D person. Had the opportunity to help create the program and causes in neuroscience at Duke. I also worked with Melinda French Gates on her first philanthropic project at Duke, which then led to the creation of the Bill and Melinda French Gates Foundation. And I also worked with Apple on an iPod experiment at Duke. So there’s many points of connection.
SPP: Picking up where you left off, actually I did read about the iPod experiment that you did which involved giving, was it every Freshman in one year an iPod, is that what it was?
Cathy: That’s exactly right. It was 2003 and if you can remember back that far to the distant era of 2003 the iPod was brand new and there were those huge billboards all over the world of people in silhouette with their hair flying and they were listening to music. iTunes barely existed, the technology was very rickety and there was almost nothing available from iTunes. And people were thinking of the iPod as a listening device. And Apple took six universities and said they would make us a deal on some technology we could give to our students for educational purposes.
And I was Vice Publisher in a Disciplinary Studies at the time and several of us were thinking about what to do. And we said “Well why not use the technology young people love? Let’s go with the iPod and if that’s no educational use let’s ask our students to come up with education uses and really turn it into an experiment and really experiment, not just with a technology but with putting students in the leadership role.
So it was a little tricky because we only gave them the first year students and within a few days the second, third and fourth year students were yelling and saying “Hey, we paid tuition too how come we don’t get a free one.” And I said “That’s a good point. So how about this, if you can convince any professor to use an iPod in a class next semester for educational purposes we’ll give you, the professor and every member of the class your own iPod.”
Well that was a little Machiavellian because we tend to think that you have to compete or work for something it’s more valuable. And we’ve kind of were afraid that if we just gave them free to freshman students instead of coming up with educational uses they’d throw them in a drawer, they’d use them for listening to music and that would be the end of the experiment.
Cathy: So by making it challenging we gave away more free iPods to students who had come up with educational uses than we did to the first year students.
SPP: Oh wow!
Cathy: It was a tremendous incredible success and everyone knows that Steve Jobs is no full. For Apple it was millions, maybe billions, of dollars in free R&D done by Duke students. So for example, a few years ago I found the poster for the first “podcasting” conference in the world which was held by Duke students. And I was inundated in the folder there was this piece of yellow paper where we had these different words like eye casting, pod, broadcasting. I mean we had all these different names before we came up with podcasting it’s hard to remember that just seven years ago podcasting didn’t exist.
Cathy: And when you think about the implications in that there’s now I think half a million academic lectures you can listen to on iTunes. SPP: Absolutely.
Cathy: So this was pretty amazing. It was a huge success. Boy we took a lot of flak for it. We were on the cover of Newsweek we were on the National News, people yelling that we were pandering to students, that this was the end of the world as we knew it. Not everyone loved what we were doing.
SPP: I also wanted to ask you how you kind of got into things like the book you wrote “Now You See It” and “Attention” and basically the neuroscience as you say, even though you originally studied English.
Cathy: Well first of all my whole childhood I thought I was going to be a math student and I was sure I was going to go on in AI and Artificial Intelligence. That’s actually my passion it’s probably the thing I do innately do best. I don’t know what innately mean, but it’s my passion and it’s what I thought until I made a big U-turn what I would pursue as a field. I’m dyslexic and just was not a good student. I got scholarships to math camp the same year I probably got Cs and Ds on my report card in math. So it was a kind of math camp where some of the other kids in the camp were going straight to MIT at age 13 and 14.
Cathy: So some really smart kids were there. I had a quirky intelligence so I could do very well on some kinds of things and really badly at others and it wasn’t always consistent. So I ended up at a small liberal arts college called Elmhurst College, not one that anyone’s ever known outside of Chicago. And I had a brilliant IT teacher who had been a road scholar at Princeton and then went onto Oxford. At Harvard and at MIT she had all of the most famous inventors of artificial intelligence as her teachers. And she was teaching at this little liberal arts college as a part time professor and her dad was Head of the Philosophy Department.
When I was applying for a PhD she said “You know I’m teaching at this school at this school with my background and it’s because there’s no women in artificial intelligence anywhere in the country. And I was a kid who had to work to get through college, meaning I had jobs the whole time through school. And the idea that I would get a PhD and not be able to get a job was just appalling to me. So I basically said “Well what do women go into, I guess they read books so I’ll go into English.” It wasn’t quite that cynical or that negative but it was a pretty late decision.
And even my doctoral dissertation was just on the very cresting ranking century journalist Ambrose Bierce had a lot of semiotics and semantics in it. So I was a late bloomer in English and have never done English in a conventional way and when the internet was invented I got pretty excited because it meant I could put my love of the history of technology, which was my main field and my love of science and computer science and AI back together again.
Cathy: The footnote to all of that is there’s still computer science field has fewer women than any other field. So in engineering 50% of engineers are women in college. Well 60% of medical students and students in medical schools are women and computer science is still less than 10%.
SPP: I guess this transitions into I wanted to talk to you about your brand new book that’s just coming out “Now You See It: How the Brain Science Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work and Learn”. And the title alone caught me because that cue word “attention” is something that’s a hot button as we talked about with all the things that are instantaneous these days with the Twitters and the Facebooks and the video games. My first thought when I think about that is all this ADD, ADHD, all these drugs and everything. Is this a new problem? Is this an old problem with a new name? Is this even a problem at all?
Cathy: Well I think all of those questions are wonderful, really wonderful questions and they can all be answered kind of in good ways and bad ways. I personally think that there’s something wrong, way wrong in a culture that’s now up to about 26% of entering college students have been tested and diagnosed or medically pharmaceutically treated for some kind of learning disorder. That can’t be right. I mean something is so wrong.
And so I think the first way I’d answer your questions, as I said that was a complicated question, there’s lot s of different answers, but the first word is say is clearly there is a relationship between the pharmaceutical industry and the diagnosis. So I would say the first thing we have to be really careful about is using drugs as a first rather than a last resort to treat kids. Whatever ADD is that’s a real problem. Some of my students they take the drugs like Ritalin to enhance their performance on Saturday’s test so they can get scholarships to college, but it’s so twisted on every level and so scary to me since we don’t really understand the long term side effects of drugs like Ritalin.
Cathy: So two one of the teachers had profiled in the book. I don’t really talk about the future much in the book I really talk about now, because I think we’ve already gone through a change but our institutions have been very, very slow to change. But I also interview lots of people, not just famous people but ordinary people who are finding phenomenally interesting solutions that we can all learn from. Again not in the future but right now they’ve already done it. and I think it’s important for all of us to have models that we can adapt and learn from and follow in our lives.
One of the models is somebody who passed away many years ago and she was my mother-in-law, my late mother-in-law who taught in a three room school in rural, very rural Alberta, Canada from the 1950s to the mid 1980s. She taught well beyond retirement age and was a legendary brilliant, brilliant, brilliant teacher. But she was the first person that actually said to me “I love kids, I love teaching, but something has changed in my students in the last decade.” And she meant from the 70s and 80s, so long before the internet existed. And I said “Why do you think it is?”
And her diagnosis was twofold. She thought her own experience was that the kids diets had changed hugely and they were eating far more those refined sugars and chemicals in processed test food than they had before. She said she was noticing, for example, after lunch when they would eat in the school cafeteria with this food with all these additives in it and so much sugar and salt that they would act in this way after lunch that was really different than they acted before. It was still in a time when they continued to have hardy country breakfast in the morning and then eat this school food at lunch that was already processed food. She was the first person who ever said pay attention to food additives and diet changes.
SPP: That’s a great point.
Cathy: Again this is before the internet. SPP: Right.
Cathy: The second thing she noticed before the internet was parents, even in rural Alberta were driving parent’s kids to school where she at 17 would ride half broken horses to school, 30 miles to school through wilderness in grizzly country, to put miles on these horsed before they could be sold to other rangers as broken horses. As horses that were already trained horses. And after that she would walk and so she was riding and walking and all the kids did. Suddenly parents were driving their kids a mile, before that a mile would have been a normal distance. And there were school busses taking kids and kids were having play dates. And she was noticing that the kids were fidgety. And so she really as part of her pedagogy teaching academic subjects to third, fourth and fifth graders would incorporate more and more movement in the classroom. So she would do things like have spelling bees where if they got the right answer they would have to, not just give the answer, but they’d have to jump up from their seat and jump in place for like two or three minutes in order for the answer to be counted as the correct answer. And it was fun and the kids had a blast doing it, but she said they learned more because they were using their bodies physically in a way that they weren’t.
So I’ve never forgotten that. That seemed really profound to me and neither of those is about the internet but they’re important because it’s so easy for us to blame the internet for things that well may be large scaled at the academic logical, sociological changes in things like the way we diagnose things, the way we prescribe medicines, the way our diet has changed, the way our exercise levels have changed. Is it the internet or is it these very large complex other factors.
Cathy: I’m really suspicious of anything that blames one factor on the same.
SPP: Yes. And I’m not one of those people that you hear a lot of times oh I wish we could go back to the old days when things were simpler. I’m the one that says like when was the last time you picked up a roadmap when you were lost? I don’t want to go back to those days.
Cathy: Right. And simpler is so relevant. I mean the first speeding ticket that was ever given is for somebody who’s driving in the Midwest at the breakneck speed of 11 miles an hour. My other favorite example from history is when congress tries to prevent Motorola from doing what they thought would be a disaster, cause just chaos and havoc, which is putting a radio in the dashboard of Ford Motor Cars.
Cathy: So it seems like they’re causing disasters now. On one level what we’re saying is this is new. Some of what’s new is good some of what’s new isn’t good.
Cathy: Just because it’s new doesn’t mean it’s good, just because it’s new doesn’t mean it’s bad, but it is new so we’re having to pay attention in a different way. And I like to say distraction is our friend. If we’re distracted by something it should make us alert to a change condition where our habits aren’t serving us and we need that in order to change our habits. If we’re not paying attention to our habits they’re automatic and they’re not serving us well.
SPP: Okay. Well I want to get back to your book a little bit more because it’s extremely interesting and it’s a topic that I’m very interested in myself. I wanted to talk to you about the brain science of attention because that’s all fairly new information and it changes, as you explained it, it kind of changes the way we see attention and then it changes our life. So I was hoping you could kind of give us a quick overview of the actual science that you use and that we utilize to understand these things.
Cathy: Absolutely. The most basic element that I talk about is attention blindness or what psychologist call kind of awkwardly inattention blindness. And it’s the phenomena that means that every baby pays attention to everything and a baby learns whatever is or isn’t important to pay attention to. So if you’re ever watched a baby be mesmerized by shadows they might find that more interesting than grandpa. But society is very early telling them “No it’s important to pay attention to grandpa and it’s not important to pay attention to fan blades and shadows.”
So you learn attention. You learn how to focus you learn what to focus on. But the irony is this great we have of being able to focus means that in order to pay attention to something, in order to focus, we’re not paying attention to anything else where really our brain is not just looking at something it’s not looking at other things.
That’s what attention is it’s selecting and very carefully and selectively choosing what to pay attention and not to, what to focus on. And it’s so hard for us to see this that there’s a brilliant experiment that was conducted in the 70, and when the technology got better it was re-conducted in 1999, which you may have seen on YouTube it’s now quite famous. And it’s just you have people watch a video of six people throwing basketballs back and forth and you have them count how many times people are tossing basketballs. Only if the people are wearing black shirts. You don’t count the number of times basketballs are being passed by people wearing white shirts. And the video stops and you ask the question or ask the audience how many basketballs did you see tossed and if you counted 15 then you got a perfect score. But then the questionnaire says and how many of you saw the gorilla? And about 60% of the people who are so focused on counting the basketballs missed the fact that a person of full gorilla suit, head to toe, walks in right among the six basketball gazers. Right there walks away after nine seconds on the screen and 60% of the people don’t see the basketball.
SPP: I don’t understand it. I’ve heard that but I cannot fathom it.
Cathy: It’s so unfathomable. And there’s many of these tricks. There’s another one that works to train pilots where you make the pilot navigate through all this complicated stuff and wind currents, etc, etc, etc, and then the pilots finally land the planes. It’s all done with the simulator thank goodness because then you show the pilot the simulation again and they are so proud that they did everything perfectly, and what they don’t see is they landed their plane on top of another plane or sideways on the runway just at the moment when the tester is saying “Fantastic you’re about to come in. Just land the plane safely and you’re all done.”
The pilots are so relieved that they’re tasks , the main experiment they don’t see that they’re landing their plane on another plane.
Cathy: It’s astonishing and you almost have to be fooled into believing it because you cannot believe that you would make the mistake, you just cannot until you’re trapped in it. But if you miss the thriller and the other plane you can miss anything in the world. And it’s very important to remember that because if we’re talking about multitasking what we have to realize it’s actually, there’s a whole world out there we’re missing and we always are. What with the right tools and the right partners and the right message we can actually find ways to see much more of the picture than we actually do in our everyday lives.
And that’s really the method of now you see it where we’ve gone through a huge cultural change with the internet and everybody’s so worried about multitasking that they’re missing incredible opportunities that this new world offers them. And we have to pause and really understand ways that in fact we can pay attention and better ways to the changes that are happening everywhere around us. It’s not the future we have changed. We don’t see how much we’ve changed and we need to really change our world of work and school to take advantage of these changes.
SPP: Well you know, and that’s funny when you were talking about work because I know that work has basically become this thing that you can do anytime any place. And it’s a good thing and a bad thing. We’ve joked, even on this podcast that I feel like I get more work done in a day than my parents probably did in a week and it’s true. But what do you recommend for using our time properly now that we can have this work/life thing and one can take over the other.
Cathy: That’s another one of those huge questions that I’m so glad you’re asking them because in sense that is the gorilla of our lives. And most HR departments still act as if we all punch a punch clock and we come into our offices and we work in the same old way, we never at home at night, which we know is not true. I actually have a physical office I go into. I don’t go into it eight hours a day I go in probably four hours a day, but I probably work 20 hours a day. But my physical office is almost comical. I can close the door to shutout the noise in the corridor but then I turn on my computer and the whole world. Who cares if the door is closed the whole world is coming at me on my computer.
Cathy: And it’s my personal life as well as my professional life. And as you said in your question it’s the opposite. I go home at night and I might want to be entertained on the computer but there’s an email from my supervisor saying “You’re grant budget stinks and if we don’t get that submitted correctly by noon tomorrow we’re going to lose $2 million dollars.” Well needless to say there goes my leisure time I’m up all night working on the grant. And we’ve all had that experience.
We actually have this software now that would allow us to clock our work in a much saner way so that I could actually log into a system that says I’m working and allow me to get credit for the ways we’re working. We spent the whole of the 20th Century creating worker protections the eight hour day Child Labor Laws, weekends, vacation time, all of that stuff was very hard fought for. We’ve kind of lost all of it in the 21st Century and we haven’t figured out new ways of protecting ourselves so that we do have some leisure time.
And you were totally right about how much you get done. The statistics are that we now work more than any other people on earth except for the South Koreans, so that’s interesting because we think of America as not productive anymore.
SPP: Wow! No way.
Cathy: Yep we’ve rivaled the South Koreans and we’re the Number 2 most productive people on the planet. SPP: Wow!
Cathy: We work more hours per week than our parents worked and our parents worked more hours per week than their parents did. America’s the only country in the world that doesn’t have required national mandatory vacations. We’re one of the few that don’t have national benefits like healthcare systems and so forth. So in terms of our work life we are far more productive and less taken care of than just about anywhere else in the world, which most Americans don’t know that.
So that’s interesting, that’s very, very interesting. And again we have institutions that we took 100 years to create for the Industrial Age, which chose the beginning to think about what would it look like to protect those employers, because we want corporations to be profitable, but also employees in this new arranged workplace. That’s one of the gorillas that I think we have to address as a culture, as a society, and as a global society.
SPP: I know that we’re getting close on time here, but I love this subject because I have struggled with it sense I entered the workforce. I think that the people, I don’t want to say bosses, but maybe a little more old school, they really concentrate more on hours worked than amount of work.
SPP: And you have to go to an office where you can do everything from home. What things have you noticed or have you come up with or solutions? What should we be moving towards to give us these safeguards and to maybe keep us as productive or to make us more productive, but also give us that kind of health issue, work/life balance?
Cathy: Right. Because we know that if you work too much it’s bad for your health so it may be more productive now but if we’re talking about a whole lifespan it’s not going to be productive. We’re going to be doing damage to ourselves if we don’t find ways to have some leisure time.
Cathy: I profile IBM in the book because I think of no more boring 19th Century business. SPP: Yes.
Cathy: It’s one of the only businesses from the machine age to survive in the present. It invented the punch clock so I thought what better metaphor? It almost went under in the 1990s and went through huge labor conforms. Interestingly the company that invented the punch clock now has 40% of its employees no longer punching a clock, 40% IBM. Isn’t that amazing.
SPP: That’s incredible.
Cathy: Most people have no idea. Most people think it’s Google. They’ve gone to a method of work they call endeavor based work, which is exactly what you pointed to. Instead of worrying about your hours it measures productivity. And it measures productivity both from supervisor’s evaluating how you do on a project to your peers evaluating how you do on a project.
Cathy: And much of IBM now is organized almost the way that movie companies are where you get the best film editor, the best costume designer, the best prop designer. You all come to a location you work intensely 24 hours a day on a project and when the movie is done cut, it’s a wrap, everyone goes off and some people then reassemble in other projects later. But you give yourself systems of credit for the work you accomplished on that project. And there’s merit raises at IBM for all workers, including hourly workers not just executives, based on endeavor and accomplishment not on number of hours put in.
Is IBM a perfect company, I’m sure it’s not. It wasn’t my job to be a shield and an advertisement for IBM.
Cathy: I was just fascinated that this Bahemas of a company has flourished by really coming to grips with some of the kinds of issues that we all are facing. And we can learn from what this huge company’s doing in our other life. I also found tiny companies that have come up with brilliant solutions to workplace challenges. They all sight benefits are key though. If you don’t stabilize benefits, healthcare and other benefits, you can’t have a flexible workplace. And one thing that’s holding America back in the world economy is we don’t have stable guaranteed benefits that allow people to work in more flexible ways. Without that safety net you can’t have flexibility. It’s a safety net that allows you maximum innovation.
SPP: Yes I can totally see that and understand it having been in the situation of the great benefits and then situation of zero.
SPP: Well Cathy I want to say thank you so much. This has been incredible. I’ve really enjoyed talking to you. I wanted to ask do you have a Web site that you can lead our listeners too.
Cathy: I do. Go to www.cathydavidson.com and you’ll find a Web site there. I also am cofounder of an educational foundation called Hastac and that’s www.hastac.org, and that’s more for educators primarily college but also high school educators. But I think you’ll find tons of content at both of them and I hope that’s useful to your listeners.
SPP: Definitely. And we’ll make sure to put a link to that on there. And again your book “Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work and Learn”. It’s fantastic. We’ll have a link to that as well on our Web site. So Cathy again thank you so much.
Cathy: Thank you and thank you for such a thoughtful conversation. I learned a lot and I totally enjoyed it. Thank you.