Simanaitis Says

On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff


I NOTE the recent death by heart attack of Clifford Nass, 55, Stanford University professor and expert on how humans interact with advanced technology. It was Prof. Nass whose research showed so markedly the detrimental tradeoffs of multitasking. His findings also have implications in a hot topic these days—the autonomous car.


Dr. Clifford Nass (1958-2013) was the Thomas M. Storke Professor at Stanford University. His primary appointment was in Communication, but others by courtesy were in Computer Science, Education, Law and Sociology. Images from Stanford University.

A mathematician by training, Nass became interested in societal aspects of technology. He discovered that people approached technological objects as they would other humans.

In one study, for instance, computers were given prominent green frames. Users were separated into two groups, one wearing blue arm bands, the others, green ones. Guess which group felt more favorable about their machines? Yep, the greenies.

Yet Nass felt that a screen-saturated world had a depersonalizing effect on humans. He recognized that we are besieged by data—not necessarily by information—and that we’re losing the ability to analyze, to concetrate and to empathize.

In 2009, Nass and his colleagues published a study of multitasking (, the implications of which were unexpected. Multitaskers—those involved with more than a single item or content stream at the same time—turned out to be not very good at any of their tasks.

Contrasted with those who treated tasks in sequential manner, multitaskers were inferior in organizing information. They were poor judges of irrelevant data. And they were inefficient when switching from one task to another.

What’s worse, they were unaware of these problems of multitasking. Multitaskers thought they were doing great. Nass argued that heavy multitasking shortens attention spans and diminishes the ability to concentrate.

Not at all the stereotypical tech nerd, Nass was an advocate of face-to-face human interactions. He worried that social media, Twitter, texting and the like, had a detrimental effect in this regard: A human’s social and emotional developments were eroded, not enhanced.


Nass was director of Stanford’s Revs Transportation Program and co-director of its Center for Automotive Research. He also founded and directed the Communication between Humans and Interactive Media Lab.

Despite his automotive enthusiasms, Nass spoke with caution about one aspect of potential future mobility—cars that drive themselves.

The shortcoming of an autonomous vehicle, he noted, was not its technology, but rather the human interaction with it. “The windshield,” Nass said, “was in danger of becoming just another screen.”

Quoted in Automotive News, Nass said, “Imagine you get into an autonomous car, and it’s sunny outside, your suburban road is empty and you’re playing Angry Birds.”

But “An hour later, the car asks that you take over within 10 seconds. Except now, it’s pouring rain, there’s tons of traffic downtown, and the car to your left rear is behaving erratically.”

“We have no idea,” Nass said, “whether people can mentally prepare themselves for this.” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2013


  1. Jeff Wright
    November 16, 2013

    Interesting research results about multitasking. And, interesting observations about autonomous vehicles. We obviously lost Professor Nass way too young. But, truly, Dennis; it is difficult to imagine us old-time R&T readers enjoying autonomous cars. Maybe they represent the future of transportation appliances for R&T’s new crop of subscribers, raised on video games? Please Mazda, no autonomous Miatas! Ever! I am truly enjoying your daily column ever since I rediscovered you about a month ago. And, daily is way cooler than monthly! It sure seems like you are still having as much fun as ever keeping us informed and entertained. Always my best to you and Dottie.

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