Taking Multi-Tasking to Task

by Nelson Harvey


If you’re listening to music, eating, writing a paper, chatting online, or talking on the phone as you read this post, take heed. Odds are that multi-tasking manifests itself in your life in one form or another, but that may mean bad news for your quality of life and your intelligence. That’s what novelist and critic Walter Kirn argues in the November issue of the Atlantic Monthly, in a truly illuminating piece titled “The Autumn of the Multi-Taskers.”

Kirn is truly one of the sharpest writers out there today, in my view, and the piece is worth a read if you can get it. He cites new research showing that when we multi-task, we employ the part of our brains involved with “visual processing and physical coordination,” while appearing to neglect “some of the higher areas related to memory and learning.” As he puts it, we concentrate on concentrating, rather than on what we’re doing.

So what’s the connection to environmental issues? The idea of moving toward “sustainability” is about getting back to the things that really matter, in our economic, political and personal lives. But we’ll never stop to think about what those things are if we’re constantly thumbing away on the Blackberry.

To me, one thing that really matters is what we mean when we use the word “freedom.” Kirn describes how when Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) like the Blackberry and Palm Pilot were first released, they came clothed in the language of freedom. Of course, what advertisers were really selling was efficiency, convenience and mobility packaged as freedom. Freedom, they said, meant giving us the world at our fingertips, wherever we were. In so doing, they made every spare moment a potential working moment. Time off-line became wasted time, and “being ‘here’ and ‘living’ suddenly became being ‘nowhere’ and doing ‘nothing,’” as Kirn puts it. If this technology offered freedom, it was freedom from the present, and from the geographical and social contexts in which we exist. It’s hard to see how such freedom could be beneficial for personal and community life.

Freedom, to me, means the freedom to unplug, as we’ve discussed here before. Given that many of us spend so much time at the keys (and I’m not talking ivories), we should take heed at Kirn’s definition of multi-tasking. To wit:

“Multitasking, a definiton: the attempt by human beings to operate like computers, often with the assistance of computers.”

Photo credit: Evilangelica


3 thoughts on “Taking Multi-Tasking to Task

  1. Rosa says:

    Thank you for this post. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because we’re thinking about getting a cell phone and I’m a little worried about establishing boundaries around cell phone usage and how we’re going to get what we want out of the cell phones (availability to each other & whoever’s doing child care) without becoming dependent on the cell phones or being interrupted by them all the time.

  2. Megan says:

    My family struggles with this also. Got rid of the television, the cell phones and the computer take over. Got rid of the cell phones, still trying to figure out about the computer.

  3. mescalinesunrise says:

    I find I am usually unable to multitask in the short-run, but have no restrictions in the long-run. Bizarre.

    Your post was rather informative though. I can’t “not” be online, and somehow I do view time offline as wasted time. Suffice it to say, we have become completely dependent on computers. 😐

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