Multitasking Is Our Main Activity

from the learn-to-love-it dept

Earlier this year, I wrote a post questioning whether the "inefficiency" found in multitasking was a bug or a feature. It was in response to studies pointing out that people who multitask tend to be less efficient at specific tasks. Folks like Nick Carr like to hold up things like that as examples of how modern technology makes us dumber, but more and more people are questioning that concept. While this is from a few months ago, Kevin Donovan points us an excellent piece by economist Tyler Cowen that challenges the concept that internet multitasking is a problem. In it, he makes a key point:
Multitasking is not a distraction from our main activity, it is our main activity.
That's a nicer way of saying what we said a few months ago. The "inefficiencies" from multitasking aren't a bug. They're a feature. Cowen goes on to explain it using the analogy of a long distance relationship compared to a stable marriage:
A long-distance relationship is, in emotional terms, a bit like culture in the time of Cervantes or Mozart. The costs of travel and access were high, at least compared to modern times. When you did arrive, the performance was often very exciting and indeed monumental. Sadly, the rest of the time you didn't have that much culture at all. Even books were expensive and hard to get. Compared to what is possible in modern life, you couldn't be as happy overall but your peak experiences could be extremely memorable, just as in the long-distance relationship.

Now let's consider how living together and marriage differ from a long-distance relationship. When you share a home, the costs of seeing each other are very low. Your partner is usually right there. Most days include no grand events, but you have lots of regular and predictable interactions, along with a kind of grittiness or even ugliness rarely seen in a long-distance relationship. There are dirty dishes in the sink, hedges to be trimmed, maybe diapers to be changed.

If you are happily married, or even somewhat happily married, your internal life will be very rich. You will take all those small events and, in your mind and in the mind of your spouse, weave them together in the form of a deeply satisfying narrative, dirty diapers and all. It won't always look glorious on the outside, but the internal experience of such a marriage is better than what's normally possible in a long-distance relationship.

The same logic applies to culture. The Internet and other technologies mean that our favorite creators, or at least their creations, are literally part of our daily lives. It is no longer a long-distance relationship. It is no longer hard to get books and other written material. Pictures, music, and video appear on command. Culture is there all the time, and you can receive more of it, pretty much whenever you want.

In short, our relationship to culture has become more like marriage in the sense that it now enters our lives in an established flow, creating a better and more regular daily state of mind. True, culture has in some ways become uglier, or at least it would appear so to the outside observer. But when it comes to how we actually live and feel, contemporary culture is more satisfying and contributes to the happiness of far more people. That is why the public devours new technologies that offer extreme and immediate access to information.

Many critics of contemporary life want our culture to remain like a long-distance relationship at a time when most of us are growing into something more mature. We assemble culture for ourselves, creating and committing ourselves to a fascinating brocade. Very often the paper-and-ink book is less central to this new endeavor; it's just another cultural bit we consume along with many others. But we are better off for this change, a change that is filling our daily lives with beauty, suspense, and learning.
The full piece is much longer, but beautifully written and quite convincing.

Filed Under: bug, efficiency, feature, multitasking, tyler cowen

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  1. icon
    mike42 (profile), 25 Nov 2009 @ 11:39am

    Apples and Oranges

    Mike, the "multitasking" that you and Mr. Cowen (and Nick Carr, as well) are referencing is not what the studies are terming, "multitasking." They are talking about writing 3 proposals and reading a resume all at the same time, not writing an article with an occasional break for an e-mail.

    Anyone who has attempted to do the 3 or more related tasks at once is almost guarenteed to have a horror story of how they put the wrong client name/product name/ business name in one of the documents, which ultimatly cost them an account.

    This is because any sufficiently complicated task requires context; that is, information in short-term memory which is related to the job at hand. When you switch tasks, you have to switch context. In my line of work (software development), context switching is substantial, well known, and accepted. That's why people are rarely asked to be on more than one project or task at the same time.

    So when you think of multitasking, don't think, "talking on the phone to the wife and writing an e-mail to Mom," think "architecting a skyscraper while designing a shopping mall and a rocket engine."

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