I tweet, therefore I am

The rise of new forms of communications over the past 20 years is generally regarded as a positive development for most, if not all, businesses. Productivity has risen across the board, right?

Greg Bright*

Well, maybe. Maybe not. And even if it has – which is actually demonstrably the case – what has been the true cost?

One cost, which is dear to the hearts of those of us in the media, is the decline of big daily newspapers. True, there is now a greater diversity of views expressed by many more people via the internet, but there is actually less professional journalism. Blogs cannot support large newsrooms with teams of investigative reporters. Neither, sadly, can many newspapers any more.

But closer to the hearts of people running pension funds should be a less tangible cost of the new communications age. Think about how your office functioned 20 years ago; now think how it functions today. Chances are that 20 years ago you had many more verbal conversations with colleagues, clients and service providers than you do today. Chances are your colleagues, and you, now spend a major part of your day either looking at your computer screen or in pre-arranged meetings. Chances are, more importantly, you have less time for creative thought and discussion than previously.

This is not just the view of an aging investment writer; this is also the view of an increasing body of research into the impact of technological developments on business and personal lives.

Linda Stone, a Californian academic, coined the phrase “continuous partial attention” (CPA) in 1998 to describe one of her observations of people’s behaviour with the rise of use of email for business communications. Today, with the addition of social networking via Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and other media, all accessible via mobile handheld devices, her observation is proving prescient.

CPA refers to the way in which people are skimming the surface of incoming data, however it is delivered, picking out relevant details and moving on to the next stream, according to author Berlin Johnson. He said: “You’re paying attention, but only partially. (CPA) is about scanning continuously for opportunities across a network, not solely about optimising one’s time by multi-tasking.”

Stone takes issue with the term ‘multi-tasking’ because she says this implies the impulse to be more productive and efficient. CPA, on the other hand, involves the motivation to be a “live node” on the network. She has subsequently made a career out of advising people how to reclaim their attention, including paying more attention to one’s breathing, particularly when at the computer screen. She is proposing that the next, positive, development will be the era of “conscious computing”.

So, pay attention. The issue for pension fund executives, along with all business people, is that creativity and original thought is being compromised by our use of communications technology. This is a big problem in the investment world where it is clearly shown that a natural herd mentality leads to at-best mediocre performance and at-worst the lemming-like rush into market bubbles.

It is difficult to be a contrarian investor unless you are paying attention to the signals which are not evident, almost by definition, via Google searches.

*Greg Bright is the Bejing-based publisher of Top1000