The multitask delusion

Every once in a while, you stumble across that really makes you think. That happened to me some time ago. Browsing Slashdot, as usual, I found a story about this post’s title. It revolves about what could be termed as «multitasking in the information age». How instant messaging, and sms text messaging and TVs and iPods and next generation cell phones all blend in together with the shinning promise of helping boost our productivity (both on a professional and personal level), of making us do more in less time, of making us multi task. And how that inescapably leads us to attain the very same opposite: to do less, and at a higher cost. And how we have (or should have) seen it coming.

To understand why I ended up (re)reading this article so many times, and even storing a printed version, some background is needed about my (quite) late blossom into computer world, and the subsequent years in college, studying—you’ve guessed it—computers.

Although I had been playing with computers for some years before, I got my first computer at the age of 16. Of course I was lured into the realm of computer games, but unlike many colleagues and friends, I thought little of if, and spent very little time playing—back then. I also started making Word (yes MS Word!) notes of some of my high school classes, and I guess that was really the beginning of it. It took me quite a long time to write those notes, and the benefit I had, if some at all, was close to none. I see that now, I should have also seen it back then. But I guess, never having owned a computer before, the hype and the promise were all too attracting.

We all remember the promises. The slogans. They were all about freedom, liberation. Supposedly we were in handcuffs and wanted out of them. The key that dangled in front of us was a microchip.

Sometime after I got that first computer, came the internet (an oldie 56K dial-up connection that monopolized the phone line whenever anyone was “surfing”). And after that, along came college. I had all resources I need, to be ultra-supra-high-efficient. Or so I thought…

Now on top of all that, I was studying computer engineering, a course in which you are expect to work A LOT more and think a lot less (not to mention weird things like, oh I don’t know, sleeping…). So that’s how I started to multitask. The studying, the assignments, loud music all the way (too loud, too along the way), MSN with everyone all the time (cell phone use and the corresponding bill saw a steady decrease during this time, which might well be the only good thing that came out of all that mess). And games! Right, in my sophomore year I got addicted to Unreal Tournament, which undoubtedly helped to boost the party.

The abiding, distinctive feature of all crashes, whether in stock prices, housing values, or hit-TV-show ratings, is that they startle but don’t surprise. When the euphoria subsides, when the volatile graph lines of excitability flatten and then curve down, people realize, collectively and instantly (and not infrequently with some relief), that they’ve been expecting this correction.

In my case, the frenzy lasted three years. By that time I was in my final year, and had long realized that all the effort I was putting in graduating was not yielding as good results as I’d desire, though I was unable to grasp why. Granted, I did not like a lot of subjects that were part of the curricula for the last years (in fact, I actively hated many of them, specially those even remotely related with management). But I wanted to graduate and move out of the city, so I did put a lot of honest effort into it. Ah, but we are going astray…

OK, back to topic. During those years, I distinctively remember a conversation with a friend, that despite not being a computer engineering student, also used to study alongside the computer. Whenever she’d be without an internet connection, she’d complain: “ah I was so used to always clicking on the [tray] icons for MSN and eMule[P2P client that was very popular around here until being overthrown by BitTorrent] and now I miss it!”. In what MSN is concerned at least, I still carry that habit. Not as badly as before, but still way too much.

The crash came in two steps(!). The first forced a slow down, the second a complete standstill. But eventually I graduated, moved on, and got time to think. And precisely in thought, I found out (and had begun to suspect), laid the difference. The nature of my course already got me so overwhelmed with work; computer+msn+music+… complete and stealthy took over what little time I could afford to spare. Study took longer, and became under-productive. Here’s why (I got the chills the first time I read this paragraph):

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. We concentrate on the act of concentration at the expense of whatever it is that we’re supposed to be concentrating on.

And therein laid the rub. If only I could have known this some years early. But I didn’t, I read it now. And despite late, it is infinitely better than never.

Where do you want to go today?” Microsoft asked us.

Now that I no longer confuse freedom with speed, convenience, and mobility, my answer would be: “Away. Just away. Someplace where I can think.”

Anyone who knows me, even if barely, knows I read a lot. But if you ask me what’d recommend for anyone that uses a computer for more than writing one-page letters in MS Word, this would definitely be it. Take it from someone who’s been there… and back.

One response to “The multitask delusion

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