Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Huh??? What???

Via Patrick Appel, filling in for Andrew Sullivan, Bryan Appleyard on distractions:
We’re all distracted, we’re all interrupted. How foolish we are! But, listen carefully, it’s killing me and it’s killing you....[T]here is the great myth of multitasking. No human being, he (David Meyer) says, can effectively write an e-mail and speak on the telephone. Both activities use language and the language channel in the brain can’t cope. Multitaskers fool themselves by rapidly switching attention and, as a result, their output deteriorates.
People who routinely "multitask" suffer from stress-related diseases, with interruptions consuming 2.1 hours a day in a knowledge worker's day.

In this rambling but effective essay, Appleyard goes on to discuss the growing inability of people to concentrate, even to read, as, once a mode of constant distraction and reaction is established, we are losing our ability to move back to the mode of focus on one coherent line.

And, as we lose our ability to interact with a single thread, we spin large numbers of insubstantial ones:
Teenagers are being groomed to think others can be picked up on a whim and dropped because of a mood or some slight offence. The fear is that the idea of sticking with another through thick and thin – the very essence of friendship and love – will come to seem absurd, uncool, meaningless.
There is concern that this is a permanent condition for our young people, and that something important is being lost:
Studies show older people are generally more adept with computers than younger. This is because, like all multitaskers, the kids are deluding themselves into thinking that busy-ness is depth when, in fact, they are skimming the surface of cyberspace as surely as they are skimming the surface of life. It takes an adult imagination to discriminate, to make judgments; and those are the only skills that really matter.
And there is very little chance that this will turn around, because there is a lot more money to be made in devices of distraction, the iPhones, the Blackberries, the e-mail alerts, the Facebook friend requests, than there is in products that bear a more contemplative aspect.
These things do make our lives easier, but only by destroying the very selves that should be protesting at every distraction, demanding peace, quiet and contemplation.
This is a good piece, and there's more than I've been able to excerpt, so read the whole thing. One aspect that Appleyard fails to touch upon, though, is the extent to which this can be part of a power game. The employee who has to multitask at the whim of his boss is being put in his place. But it can work the other way.

I once supported a manager who would call underlings into her office, then take and make phone calls, working on other things while we would sit there waiting for a scrap of her attention. The context shifts were remarkably time-consuming, as we would have to remind her of what she was saying when she returned from whatever other thing she was doing. She undoubtedly thought of herself as quite the multitasker, but she wasted everyone else's time (because she could), and she rarely understood anything in any depth. (She also had that irritating habit of removing her earring every time she took a call, then putting it back once the call was over; I'm not sure how she had any earlobe left.)

Multitasking is impossible, not a desirable trait. The brain is simply not designed to work that way. Early computers supported time-sharing, which made multiple users think that they each had the computer to themselves, but it was essentially a trick: The single-processor computer was switching attention from one user to the next at an incredibly rapid rate. (Computers still do this, we don't call it time-sharing any longer.) Unfortunately, the human brain has a lot more trouble doing seamless context switching, and it doesn't surprise me at all that people are starting to experience stress disorders from trying to do so.

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