Thursday, February 4, 2010

The myth of multitasking

Remember when people bragged about their ability to multitask, how they accomplished so much more, were so much more efficient, and so on?

There were articles about how women were much better multitaskers than men, speculation that it was due to some mysterious evolutionary thing involving picking berries and watching for snakes while tending to their young ones, or something.

There were other articles about how teenagers were much better multitaskers than their parents because they had grown up swimming in a media soup of cellphone conversations, iTunes, texting, video games, web browsing, Facebook, Twitter, and so on.

It turns out that all of this was a crock.

Not the doing of it, but the efficiency and effectiveness of it, and the denial of the negative effect it has on our mental state and sense of wellbeing. Network culture brought us many benefits, but multitasking was not one of them.

In fact, it turns out that this is an inefficient, ineffective, way to get things done, and it can also degrade family relationships and lead to a feeling that we are distracted and failing to get traction on things that are important.

It turns out that, when multitasking, our engagement with people and tasks is superficial and disjointed.

Sound familiar?

A Stanford University study found that, "People who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time." This confirms social scientists' long held assumption that the brain can only deal with one "information string" at a time.

The study discovered that multitaskers, "couldn't help thinking about the task they weren't doing." "They can't keep things separate in their minds." Performance suffered.

This week, the documentary Digital Nation: Life on the Virtual Frontier on PBS' Frontline also dealt, in part, with this subject, and the following are just a couple of the opinions from educators and others interviewed for the program

MIT teacher Sherry Turkle chooses her words carefully, saying that her students, "have done themselves a disservice by drinking the Kool-Aid and believing that a multitasking learning environment will serve their best purposes."

Stanford sociologist Clifford Nass points to studies showing that multitasking (Facebook, YouTube, etc.) while studying significantly slows learning. Nass worries that multitasking "may be creating people who are unable to think well as clearly."

The show's producer, Rachel Dretzin, experienced a wake-up moment in her own household when she was cooking dinner while her husband and older son were using laptops on the dining room table and her two younger children were playing with an iPhone. "It hit me, we're all in the same house but we're also in other worlds. It just sort of snuck up on us, I didn't see it coming."

I'm not sure why this is all such a big surprise. The human brain didn't get rewired in the span of one generation.

Then there are the social and safety issues that come into play. Do you want other commuters texting while driving? Do you appreciate a store employee making and taking calls while ringing up your purchase? How do you feel when your lunch companion starts texting during the soup course? Would you want your surgeon to be texting the details of your surgery to his surgeon buddies while you are under the knife?

Sorry, my cellphone is ringing, and I have mail. Bye for now.

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