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.

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  1. identicon
    vyvyan, 25 Nov 2009 @ 9:15am

    took to many words to say that. Prolly the dude has got a lot of time :)

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. icon
    senshikaze (profile), 25 Nov 2009 @ 9:16am

    While that was a great explanation of the difference between modern consumption of media and previous times, I don't see the tie-in to multitasking.

    (disclaimer: did not read linked to article)

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. icon
    Jon Renaut (profile), 25 Nov 2009 @ 10:08am

    I'm sending this to my wife

    "See, honey, I'm not checking email on my phone while we're eating dinner. I'm engaged in a fulfilling, long-term relationship with culture!"

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    NullOp, 25 Nov 2009 @ 10:10am


    Yes, I agree. When multitasking, multitasking IS the activity. The individual activities are just the ingredients. Does that mean you might not do something as well as you could have? Probably. In the long run, however, multitasking is overrated.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. icon
    Marcus Carab (profile), 25 Nov 2009 @ 10:26am


    I agree... the focus seemed to switch suddenly from multitasking to media saturation and content consumption. Which is not to say that I don't agree with just about everything said.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 Nov 2009 @ 10:39am

    With the same disclaimer, I totally agree with senshikaze. I don't see the multitasking tie-in. If you're trying to count it by saying task A appeared at 9AM and wasn't completed until 3PM you can't say it took 6 hours to complete if you've been pulled away to work on tasks B, C, and D in the intervening time. You may have only been actively working on it for an hour and a half, the same amount of active time spent on it without the multitasking.

    If it's simultaneous task multitasking we're discussing, I don't do that with items that require my full attention regardless. Driving and listening to the radio is one thing. Driving and reading a book (while I have seen it before in traffic) is not functional.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    Ano, 25 Nov 2009 @ 10:52am

    It seems that the post hints multitasking is more “mature” but it seems that describing multitasking that was is as bad as describing it as a bug. One might instead theorize that multitasking is not better or worse, just different. There are probably some tasks that one should not multitask during, and some that (to maximize use of time) one should.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. icon
    Mike Masnick (profile), 25 Nov 2009 @ 11:33am


    While that was a great explanation of the difference between modern consumption of media and previous times, I don't see the tie-in to multitasking.

    I think the full article does a pretty good job making the point. It's that multi-tasking is basically doing a bunch of "little things" every day -- like a marriage. Whereas a long distance relationship involves just occasionally doing "big things". So the equivalent is that with the long distance relationship, every so often you get together and spend a lot of high intensity time just focused on each other. Like... every so often you sit down and read a good long book. But marriage, you're spending little bits of time with people all the time -- so if you're online, you're snipping little bits of smart writers all the time, and don't necessarily need to sit down with a full book.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. 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."

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. icon
    Derek Reed (profile), 25 Nov 2009 @ 11:49am

    Re: Apples and Oranges

    Maybe part of the problem surrounding these discussions is the varying definitions of multitasking. I personally take it to mean something more in line with the "email while writing an article" as opposed to "writing 3 articles at once". Or more applicable to my job, "reading an article while writing an application" not "writing 3 applications at once". There's multitasking, and then there's spreading yourself too thin, and I think some of us agree that there's a big difference between the two.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. icon
    Marcus Carab (profile), 25 Nov 2009 @ 12:35pm

    Re: Re:

    Hmm... I see what you mean, but I guess I never associated the concept of having lots of media choices with "multitasking" - I began the post thinking it was going to be debunking supposed productivity issues, changes to kids' brains or one of the other sensational fears of the digital age.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. icon
    senshikaze (profile), 25 Nov 2009 @ 1:49pm

    Re: Re:

    no after reading the original article, I see how the quote you pulled ties in, and I have to say he is right.
    All through the post I am doing other things and will quickly snap back to read another paragraph. A few times I looked up some information he had in the article (like his dachshund analogy, I own a dachshund and didn't know it's history (do now, though)). The internet is awesome.(see:

    Anyway, i now take back my original comment.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. icon
    The Groove Tiger (profile), 25 Nov 2009 @ 3:33pm

    To me, multitasking (the inefficient kind) is for example, when you boss wants you to do task 1 in Project A, but then also wants task 2 in Project B, and task 9 in Project C. Since they all have a close due date, he wants you to work these projects "in parallel" by doing multitasking, advancing 5% of each task in a time period and showing the progress. Which means that in the time you would have finished 100% of a task, you somehow managed to do 10% of each of 3 different tasks, and probably with quite a few errors from all that "task switching" in your brain.

    The "other kind" of multitasking, which I agree doesn't cause inefficiencies in my opinion, is for example, when you need to do Task A, you alt-tab to your mail, send a few mails, twitter about it, do a bit of photoshop, go back and do some PHP, then back to photoshop, then play 5 minutes of minesweeper, etc. That's the kind that keeps the mind active and productive.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. icon
    The Groove Tiger (profile), 25 Nov 2009 @ 3:35pm


    So yeah, what Derek Reed said before me.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. icon
    The Groove Tiger (profile), 25 Nov 2009 @ 3:37pm

    Re: Apples and Oranges

    "...think 'architecting a skyscraper while designing a shopping mall and a rocket engine.'"

    Interestingly enough, this is the kind of multitasking that Managers love to inflict on software development. Usually followed by "x and x can multitask, why can't you?"

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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