In New Military, Data Overload Can Be Deadly

In New Military, Data Overload Can Be Deadly by Thom Shanker and Matt Richtel, New York Times. BLUF: "As the technology allows soldiers to pull in more information, it strains their brains. And military researchers say the stress of combat makes matters worse. Some research even suggests that younger people wind up having more trouble focusing because they have grown up constantly switching their attention."

0
Your rating: None

Comments

This is an excellent article on a problem facing the military today, information overload.

Hopefully, this article will help others "see" the issues with to much information flowing into a single person.

Once we as the military see the problem, maybe we will be able to get back to the good old days of actually developing a situation and then acting on it, instead of acting on the first information into the operations center.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
MAJ John Geis, student, Command and General Staff College, U.S. Army Combined Arms Center, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas

Typo above: First paragraph should read "The brain can only do one thing at a time."

Apparently, I was trying to multi-task while writing this entry....

The real culprit here is multitasking, or more appropriately, the myth of multitasking. The Predator team was required to monitor the aircrafts video feed while simultaneously instant-messaging in tactical chat rooms AND talking on the radio. According to Joe Robinson, author of one of my favorite articles of all time, E-mail is Making You Stupid, the brain can only do two things at once. Someone who is multitasking isnt doing three things at once, rather, he is constantly switching from one to the next to the next and back again. Robinson writes:

Say a salesman is trying to read a new e-mail while on the phone with a client. Those are both language tasks that have to go through the same cognitive channel. Trying to do both forces his brain to switch back and forth between tasks, which results in a "switching cost," forcing him to slow down. Researchers at the University of Michigan found that productivity dropped as much as 40 percent when subjects tried to do two or more things at once. The switching exacts other costs too-mistakes and burnout. One of the studys authors, David Meyer, asserts bluntly that quality work and multitasking are incompatible.

Unfortunately, the military has a long and glorious history of ignoring the physiological limitations of the human body. Despite the evidence that working when deprived of sleep is functionally equivalent to being drunk, the Army, for example, will routinely direct Soldiers to perform dangerous tasks without proper sleep. This occurs under the assumption that if you do well on your physical fitness test then you should be able to overcome sleep deprivation. What does running two miles have to do with overcoming basic human physiology? Nothing, as it turns out. In fact, a creative Army Major conducted a study on the subject more than 25 years ago and found no connection between physical fitness and the cognitive effects of sleep deprivation.

The Army is doing it again here. LTG Mark Hertling, the general who oversees Army basic training, is quoted as saying, "Its the way this generation learns... Its a multitasking generation. So if theyre multitasking and combining things, thats the way we should be training." Just because this generation is doing it that way doesnt mean its right or good. Like my mother used to say, "If Jimmy jumped off a cliff would you follow him?"

You cant teach/train multitasking. What you can do is reduce the number of tasks the Predator operator or Soldier is trying to accomplish. This means higher headquarters needs to get off the net and let the commander on the ground control the action, talk to the Predator team, and get things done (UAV video feeds are affectionately known as "Field Grade Crack" in the Army). Higher level commanders need to start making themselves comfortable with the fact that they dont need to know RIGHT NOW. Let the company commanders and platoon leaders fight the fight - they will call you if they need you.

P.S. Running really fast on the physical fitness test wont help either.

This article does an excellent job of pointing out the dangers of data overload for todays military. It discusses the fact that there is a growing body of evidence developed by military researchers which states that the multi-tasking is the problem--not the solution. The research cited in this article suggests that multi-tasking "can make it hard to tell good information from bad", that "younger people have more trouble focusing because they have grown up switching their attention," and that "multi-tasking might actually have negative effects." The article goes on to point out that "even as it worries about digital overload, the Army is acknowledging that technology may be the best way to teach this new generation of soldiers." It doesnt necessarily follow that because this new generation grew up multi-tasking that is the training strategy that our Army should pursue. This is like saying that the best way to deal with too much info is to give soldiers more info. So, now our soldiers can do their cultural awareness training, update their deployment data, and fill out their computer user agreement all while texting, tweeting, and updating their Facebook status. The solution to data overload lies not in piling on more information, but rather in applying concentrated thought and focus to the whole process. The article "Solitude and Leadership" http://www.theamericanscholar.org/solitude-and-leadership/ by William Deresiewicz provides some very interesting insights into the dangers of multi-tasking and suggests some excellent methods to counter the dangers of information overload. Other solutions to data overload lie in improving our information and knowledge management systems. What decisions need to be made and what data is relevant to making that decision? The information-heavy areas need to develop battle drills that provide structure to the thoughts of our soldiers and leaders when they are becoming overwhelmed with the influx of data. There is also a level of discipline required at all levels to deliberately limit the amount and type of information viewed at each level of command. Select the data that is relevant to each level of command and then train/trust your subordinates to manage the data at their level and report as necessary. This limiting of data provides the necessary standoff from the problem needed to address the issue from all levels of war--tactical, operational, and strategic.
The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
MAJ Matt Snell, student, Command and General Staff College, U.S. Army Combined Arms Center, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas

The Predator team was required to monitor the aircrafts video feed while simultaneously instant-messaging in tactical chat rooms AND talking on the radio.

The real culprit here is multitasking, or more appropriately, the myth of multitasking. The Predator team was required to monitor the aircrafts video feed while simultaneously instant-messaging in tactical chat rooms AND talking on the radio. Doing all of these tasks, and doing them well, is impossible.

According to Joe Robinson, author of one of my favorite articles of all time, E-mail is Making You Stupid (http://goo.gl/rpW7), the brain can only do two things at once. Someone who is multitasking isnt doing three things at once, rather, he is constantly switching from one to the next to the next and back again. Robinson writes:

Say a salesman is trying to read a new e-mail while on the phone with a client. Those are both language tasks that have to go through the same cognitive channel. Trying to do both forces his brain to switch back and forth between tasks, which results in a "switching cost," forcing him to slow down. Researchers at the University of Michigan found that productivity dropped as much as 40 percent when subjects tried to do two or more things at once. The switching exacts other costs too-mistakes and burnout. One of the studys authors, David Meyer, asserts bluntly that quality work and multitasking are incompatible.

Unfortunately, the military has a long and glorious history of ignoring the physiological limitations of the human body. Despite the evidence that working when deprived of sleep is functionally equivalent to being drunk (http://goo.gl/syXmN), the Army, for example, will routinely direct Soldiers to perform dangerous tasks without proper sleep. This occurs under the assumption that if you do well on your physical fitness test then you should be able to overcome sleep deprivation. What does running two miles have to do with overcoming basic human physiology? Nothing, as it turns out. In fact, a creative Army Major conducted a study on the subject more than 25 years ago and found no connection between physical fitness and the cognitive effects of sleep deprivation (http://goo.gl/MTsLc).

The Army is doing it again here. LTG Mark Hertling, the general who oversees Army basic training, is quoted as saying, "Its the way this generation learns... Its a multitasking generation. So if theyre multitasking and combining things, thats the way we should be training." Just because this generation is doing it that way doesnt mean its right or good. Like my mother used to say, "If Jimmy jumped off a cliff would you follow him?"

You cant teach/train multitasking. What you can do is reduce the number of tasks the Predator operator or Soldier is trying to accomplish. This means higher headquarters needs to get off the net and let the commander on the ground control the action, talk to the Predator team, and get things done (UAV video feeds are affectionately known as "Field Grade Crack" in the Army). Higher level commanders need to start making themselves comfortable with the fact that they dont need to know RIGHT NOW. Let the company commanders and platoon leaders fight the fight - they will call you if they need you.

P.S. Running really fast on the physical fitness test wont help either.