Sociologist Clifford Nass dies at 55

Clifford Nass, professor of communication, sociology and computer

Clifford Nass, professor of communication, sociology and computer science, died Nov. 2, 2013. He was 55. Read the obituary (Credit: Stanford News Service)

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When Clifford Nass moved to a Stanford University freshman residence hall as a "dorm dad" in 2007, he wasn't quite prepared for college life in the 21st century. Even as a professor who for decades had studied the interaction of humans and computers, he was caught off-guard when one of his students explained why she was texting her boyfriend just down the hall.

"It's more efficient," she said.

Then there was a familiar sight Nass continued to find astonishing. In lounges, in libraries, just about everywhere, he gazed at a legion of the perennially plugged-in: They chatted on cellphones, scanned Facebook, watched videos, blasted out tweets, and maybe even thumbed through a calculus text or a history of the modern world, all at once.

"I thought: Wow, that's pretty awesome," he told The Boston Globe in 2011. "What do they know that I don't know, and how can I be like that?" The answers surprised him.

Nass, a sociologist who was among the first academics to sound alarms about the dangers of chronic multitasking and the decline in the kind of face-to-face interactions that he so unabashedly enjoyed with students and colleagues, died Saturday at Stanford Sierra Camp near South Lake Tahoe, Calif. He was 55.

Nass collapsed after a hike, the university said.

After several years of studies, Nass and other Stanford researchers came to some disturbing conclusions. They found that the heaviest multitaskers -- those who invariably said they could focus like laser beams whenever they wanted -- were terrible at various cognitive chores like organizing information, switching between tasks and discerning significance.

"They're suckers for irrelevancy," he said. "Everything distracts them."

More worrisome to Nass was his finding that people who regularly jumped into four or more information streams had a tougher time concentrating on just one thing even when they weren't multitasking. By his estimate, "the top 25 percent" of Stanford's students were in that category.

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