With all this talk of Twitter and its IPO, we want to take a few moments now to remember a man who warned against spending too much time using social media.


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

CORNISH: That's Clifford Nass. He was a trained sociologist and a Stanford University professor who studied the effects of multitasking on the human brain. Nass died on Saturday at the age of 55. He was alarmed by how difficult it was for many of his students to process complex ideas. One reason, he argued, they were chronic media users and multitaskers.


NASS: First of all, they find it very difficult to filter out irrelevant information. Second, they have serious problems with managing working memory. And finally, and perhaps most surprising, they're even bad at multitasking.

CORNISH: Professor Byron Reeves, of Stanford University, joins us to talk about his colleague and friend Clifford Nass. Professor, welcome to the program.

BYRON REEVES: Oh, thank you.

CORNISH: And first, I want to offer our condolences. Obviously, Professor Nass was loved on campus.

REEVES: Yes. He was certainly a big part of a lot of different programs here.

CORNISH: We heard some of his humor, in those clips earlier. Can you tell us more about what he was like?

REEVES: Larger-than-life character. He was just incredibly enthusiastic about his work and - just a giant hole here.

CORNISH: Tell us how he came to this area of study - multitasking - and also, the study of - sort of how people relate to their devices.

REEVES: Yeah. Early on, we spent a lot of time thinking about how people relate socially to technology - to computers, to television images, and he was very much responsible for bringing about this notion that social responses to these technologies were very much how humans were built to respond. So these were not just tools. They were really social relationships. There were voices and pictures and faces. So that started it all. And of course, those relationships weren't social, and I think that led Cliff to his more recent comments on what it means to spend so much time thinking you're relating socially but, of course, that's not really the case.

CORNISH: He also talked about this idea of chronic use of social media. He said in 2009 - PBS interview: "We could essentially be undermining the thinking ability of our society. We could essentially be dumbing down the world." What did he mean by that?

REEVES: Well, we've run out of hours in the day, to pack more media time. So Cliff noticed that what really have to do is overlay media experiences. We like them all, so we overlay them. And we're trying to do two or three - or more - things at once. So he was very concerned recently that that overlaying, that multitasking, was causing us to do less well at any given thing - and especially to relating to other humans.

CORNISH: Now, what was the response to his work? I mean, obviously, you know, you're located in the heart of Silicon Valley where, arguably, the multitasking revolution began. I mean, did his work get back to the tech industry? And did it affect the way that they did business?

REEVES: Well, I'm not sure that the influence yet has been seen in trying to dampen down the multitasking but certainly, there are other people talking about it. That conversation is very much alive. It's alive on campus. You know, he - Cliff had some exercises that he would have the dorm folks - kids do, when he was in the dorm, of actually spending time face-to-face asking each other questions; and it proved to be a little difficult. So he was very interested in moving that - those social discoveries into thinking about how to mitigate some of the negative influences of the multitasking.

CORNISH: That's Byron Reeves, talking about his fellow Stanford professor Clifford Nass. Nass died Saturday at the end of a hike. He was just 55. Byron Reeves, thank you much for speaking with us.

REEVES: You're welcome.



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