Be honest: how many other things are you doing right now?
Are you in the midst of responding to your e-mail, while casually browsing the web, scanning your friend’s most recent Facebook updates, chatting on Gchat, and mid-article on your favorite news site or blog?
Go ahead and count them: how many windows are open on your computer right now?
And what else are you doing? Are you listening to music, watching TV, or half-talking to a friend nearby? Is your cell phone within a hands reach, ready to be answered the instant you hear a text message or phone call? Or perhaps you’re even reading this on your cell phone, on your way in between classes or meetings, biding time while waiting for the next thing to require your attention?
No, this isn’t a post about Big Brother watching you; it’s about a term we all know too well: Multitasking. We have become, as writer Christine Rosen says, “mavens of multitasking,” glued to our technological gadgets, driven by our seemingly endless to-do lists of tasks. My post today asks, how have all the technologies we use – the cell phones, computers, PDAs, e-mails, and the like– accelerated the extent to which we multitask? And more importantly, what effect has it had on the way we live our lives?
A New Type Of Multitasking
The compulsion to multitask is driven by the desire to get more things done in less time, in a world that is moving at an increasingly fast pace. But gone are the days where “multitasking” meant simply reading the news while finishing your work assignment, or the common example “walking while chewing gum.” Modern technologies have ushered in a new type of multitasking–multitasking on steroids–where one cannot only do two things, but eleven things at once. Now, we live in an era where multitasking means reading the news, checking one’s e-mail, texting a friend, watching a youtube video, downloading music, and finishing a work assignment—all, if you please, while walking and chewing gum.
And I would venture to say that the new form of multitasking is not necessarily associated with accomplishing more tasks in the strictest sense, but rather just being tuned into more things at once. For those dubbed “media-multitaskers”- the ones watching TV while surfing the web on their laptops and sending text messages on their cell phones– the sheer number of available things to keep up with conditions participation across a multitude of media. Up-to-the second news updates, a constant stream of Facebook and Twitter statuses, endless e-mails, and an overwhelming amount of content available to explore at every turn: it’s hard to keep up with all the information — and impossible, certainly, if one doesn’t try to do more than one thing at once.
Writer Linda Stone says we are addicted to checking and rechecking these media, “constantly scanning for opportunities and staying on top of contacts, events, and activities in an effort to miss nothing” with what she calls “continuous partial attention”. “Our pleasure cycles are increasingly tied to it,” writes Sam Anderson, in his article “In Defense of Distraction“. And it has become hard to “unplug”, to take vacations, or, in some cases, to even take a few hours and go off the grid (just think of all the updates you’ll miss). One man wrote in the Mercury News:
“At work, of course, I typically spend almost my entire day in front of my computer. I’m constantly checking my e-mail, responding to instant messages, surfing the Web or playing around with various software programs. (And) When I’m away from my desk, I’m still tied to technology. I have my iPhone with me at all times and use it to check my work e-mail, navigate to out-of-office meetings, listen to music and news — or play the occasional game. But even on vacation, I felt an urge to be engaged with something electronic.”
Thus, the modern day multitasking mentality is driven not only by our need to complete so many tasks, per se, but increasingly by our need to keep up with the constant information streams; and with information everywhere–and gadgets that allow us to access it—we’ve essentially adopted “multi-media-tasking” as a new way of life. The question posed by ethics and technology would be: is it a good life?
Multitasking and “The Good Life”
Examining the good life inevitably asks us to consider what values we cultivate, and whether the path we are going down is the path we should be going down. When we think about technology and multitasking, we often imagine it makes us better communicators, able to be more on top of relevant information, and in general, capable of getting more done (yet whether or not these are achieved is up for debate). But when it comes cultivating the virtues of patience (“Patience is a virtue”, as we all know), or the virtue of perseverance (in other words, sustained attention) where does the multi-tasking mentality lead us? When we think about the quality of the activities we pursue instead of the quantity, what is all of this media-multi-tasking contributing to our lives?
I think the two interesting things to consider on this topic are multitasking’s effect on attention and engagement.
“When we talk about multitasking,” writer Christine Rosen says, “we are really talking about attention: the art of paying attention, the ability to shift our attention, and, more broadly, to exercise judgment about what objects are worth our attention.”
“People who have achieved great things,” she continues, “often credit for their success a finely honed skill for paying attention.”
Attention, to be sure, is a critical virtue to cultivate. Isaac Newton said that, for his discovereries, he owed “more to patient attention than any other talent.” Psychologist William James remarked, “The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will.”
“Tell me what you pay attention to,” Philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset said, “and I will tell you who you are.”
So how are all of us multitaskers doing on the attention front? Since we’re paying attention to so many things, we must be getting high marks, right?
Unfortunately, wrong. Studies confirm what I would suspect many people probably already know deep down, as each of us has had the experience of trying to complete a project while doing a million other things, only to get none of them done very well. We are bad at paying attention while we’re multitasking. Really bad at it, in fact.
A recent study conducted by Clifford Nass at Stanford University (carried out with an eye towards today’s “media-multitaskers”) showed this finding. When students were asked to multi-task while performing attentional tasks, the college-aged participants performed horribly on staying focused on what they were asked to focus on. “They’re suckers for irrelevancy,” Nass said. “Everything Distracts Them.”
Not only did they perform poorly on the rote memorization, Nass says, but on analytical types of thinking as well.
“I was very curious because I live in a dormitory here at Stanford, and I was curious how these kids were doing so many things at once. And so I wondered, jeez, you know, what is their special gift? What is their remarkable talent that I seem to lack? And our research suggests they don’t have one…
Even when we did not ask them to do anything close to the level of multitasking they were doing, their cognitive processes were impaired. So basically, they are worse at most of the kinds of thinking not only required for multitasking but what we generally think of as involving deep thought.”
Research on brain scans from UCLA has showed that our brains are terrible at switching tasks, and that doing so even results in a phyisiological stress response. Walter Kirn, Author of “The Autumn of Multitaskers” explains,
“Multitasking messes with the brain in several ways. At the most basic level, the mental balancing acts that it requires—the constant switching and pivoting—energize regions of the brain that specialize in visual processing and physical coordination and simultaneously appear to shortchange some of the higher areas related to memory and learning. Even worse, certain studies find that multitasking boosts the level of stress-related hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline and wears down our systems through biochemical friction, prematurely aging us. In the short term, the confusion, fatigue, and chaos merely hamper our ability to focus and analyze, but in the long term, they may cause it to atrophy.”
UCLA psychologist Russell Poldrack adds:
“Multi-tasking adversely affects how you learn. Even if you learn while multi-tasking, that learning is less flexible and more specialized, so you cannot retrieve the information as easily. Our study shows that to the degree you can learn while multi-tasking, you will use different brain systems.”
An oft cited study of workplace efficiency done by UC Irvine also demonstrated the ineffectiveness of multitasking. Their study showed that employees spent nearly a third of their day recovering from “information overload”, and that it took employees anywhere from 12 to 25 minutes to fully rebound from being distracted from an e-mail or phone call and resume their actual work. This loss of productivity, Balex Research estimates, cost the corporate world an average of $650 billion dollars in revenue due to inefficiency in 2008 (the number has since increased to $900 billion according to their website).
So still think you’re good at multitasking? Nass addresses you in his interview with NPR:
“One of the things that seems to be true is people who multitask very, very frequently believe they are excellent at it, and they’re actually, as far as we can tell, the worst at it of any people.”
And yet, we all multitask, and will likely continue to, perhaps even more so as our gadgets advance. But if the research is to be trusted, then the media-multitaskers must really be missing out: in paying attention to so many things, are we really paying attention to anything at all?
Life as A Multitasker
Examples on a college campus abound in our multitasking, attention-challenged culture. It seems an unwelcome challenge for students to sit for 50 or 90 minutes of class without checking their e-mail, Facebook, or websites on their laptops under the guise of taking notes, or sneaking text messages on their cell phones under their desks. Sitting and reading books or writing a paper for any sustained period of time is like a Sisyphean battle, trying to resist the urge of Youtube, e-mail or some other online interruption only to have to start the assignment over again at the beginning because of all the distractions. Having a full conversation without someone whipping out and checking his or her cell phone seems to take more willpower than most are willing to exercise.
So what are the implications that this type of attention-splitting has for our ability to engage with what we’re doing? In these instances, it seems, significant opportunities for engagement are lost: for intellectual engagement in class, for deep reading of text and focused, sustained writing, for genuine conversation. What value is gained from reading a book, if while reading that book you are interrupted so many times that you don’t absorb any of it? What worth is there in a conversation with someone if you’re constantly signaling that you’re more interested in a conversation taking place elsewhere? The opportunity to truly immerse yourself with any one thing seems replaced by the opportunity to sort-of engage with ten things.
Going forward, two perspectives emerge for the future of the multitaskers. Sam Anderson, author of “In Defense of Distraction”, takes an optimistic view, thinking that we will adapt to this attention-splitting, media-multitasking mode we are in, and grow as a result:
“There’s been lots of hand-wringing about all the skills (kids who have grown up multitasking) might lack, mainly the ability to concentrate on a complex task from beginning to end, but surely they can already do things their elders can’t—like conduct 34 conversations simultaneously across six different media, or pay attention to switching between attentional targets in a way that’s been considered impossible. …As we become more skilled at the 21st-century task Meyer calls “flitting,” the wiring of the brain will inevitably change to deal more efficiently with more information.
Kids growing up now might have an associative genius we don’t—a sense of the way ten projects all dovetail into something totally new. They might be able to engage in seeming contradictions: mindful web-surfing, mindful Twittering. Maybe, in flights of irresponsible responsibility, they’ll even manage to attain the paradoxical, Zenlike state of focused distraction.”
Christine Rosen, on the other hand, takes a strong view that “continued partial attention” will lead us down a bad road, in her article “The Myth of Multitasking”:
“The picture that emerges of these pubescent multitasking mavens is of a generation of great technical facility and intelligence but of extreme impatience, unsatisfied with slowness and uncomfortable with silence…
Perhaps we will simply adjust and come to accept what (psychologist William) James called “acquired inattention.” E-mails pouring in, cell phones ringing, televisions blaring, podcasts streaming – all this may become background noise, like the “din of a foundry or factory” that James observed workers could scarcely avoid at first, but which eventually became just another part of their daily routine. …(But) when people do their work only in the “interstices of their mind-wandering,” with crumbs of attention rationed out among many competing tasks, their culture may gain in information, but it will surely weaken in wisdom.”
On this issue, I’m more inclined to agree with Rosen than with Anderson. Though Anderson has a point that we will likely adapt, I question his premise: is “focused distraction” something we should be aiming for? Do we really want to promote this type of information grazing across so many mediums, in place of deep engagement with singular activities? Consider Multitasking expert David Meyer’s comment: “If Einstein were alive today, he’d probably be forced to multitask so relentlessly in the Swiss patent office that he’d never get a chance to work out the theory of relativity.”
I think another interesting question to consider is one posed by “lifehacker” Merlin Mann, who Anderson interviewed in his article. “Is it clear to you,” Mann says, “that the last fifteen years represent an enormous improvement in how everything operates?”
I would imagine many people, particularly technology enthusiasts, would answer, “Of course!” (the iPhone users in particular). But it’s an interesting question to consider: how do we define improvement? Does it mean more information, at a faster rate? If so, then the answer would unequivocally be yes. But what happens when we define improvement as deep, sustained interest in activities, better human interactions, and enjoyment of day-to-day life? Under these premises, have all of these multitasking-enabling technologies improved, or detracted from, our lives?
How has technology changed the way you multitask?
What effect has multitasking had on the amount of attention you pay to things, and how engaged you are in the activities you do?
Leave your thoughts in the comments section below!
Listen to Stanford University’s Clifford Nass talk about his study on media-multitaskers on NPR:
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