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Multitasking isn't good for you

“Distraction” is the great keyword of this article at TimesOnline: Stoooopid …. why the Google generation isn’t as smart as it thinks. As author Bryan Appleyard puts it in his subtitle: “The digital age is destroying us by ruining our ability to concentrate.”

To the regular readers of Jochen’s Blog, this rings a bell: Jochen created the portmanteau-style neologism “digistraction” last year. Appleyard would have been glad to use it, I’m sure – but he doesn’t seem to be aware of its existence ;-)

The fact that multitasking isn’t good for you (as opposed to Being Bond, Country Music, Guinness and Drinking Tea, for example), was mentioned in these woods in March 2007. Appleyard also refers to this mode when he explains how distraction can be dangerous:

David Meyer is professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. In 1995 his son was killed by a distracted driver who ran a red light. Meyer’s speciality was attention: how we focus on one thing rather than another. Attention is the golden key to the mystery of human consciousness; it might one day tell us how we make the world in our heads. Attention comes naturally to us; attending to what matters is how we survive and define ourselves.

The opposite of attention is distraction, an unnatural condition and one that, as Meyer discovered in 1995, kills. Now he is convinced that chronic, long-term distraction is as dangerous as cigarette smoking. In particular, there is the great myth of multitasking. No human being, he 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.

The same thing happens if you talk on a mobile phone while driving — even legally with a hands-free kit. You listen to language on the phone and lose the ability to take in the language of road signs. Worst of all is if your caller describes something visual, a wallpaper pattern, a view. As you imagine this, your visual channel gets clogged and you start losing your sense of the road ahead. Distraction kills — you or others.

Chronic distraction, from which we all now suffer, kills you more slowly. Meyer says there is evidence that people in chronically distracted jobs are, in early middle age, appearing with the same symptoms of burn-out as air traffic controllers. They might have stress-related diseases, even irreversible brain damage. But the damage is not caused by overwork, it’s caused by multiple distracted work. One American study found that interruptions take up 2.1 hours of the average knowledge worker’s day. This, it was estimated, cost the US economy $588 billion a year. Yet the rabidly multitasking distractee is seen as some kind of social and economic ideal.

If you’re still with me, i.e. if you’ve read this blog post up to here (I mean: read it properly, not just skimmed the paragraphs), it’s not so bad yet.

The concern of all these writers and thinkers is that it is precisely these skills [to discriminate, to make judgments] that will vanish from the world as we become infantilised cyber-serfs, our entertainments and impulses maintained and controlled by the techno-geek aristocracy. They have all noted — either in themselves or in others — diminishing attention spans, inability to focus, a loss of the meditative mode. “I can’t read War and Peace any more,” confessed one of Carr’s friends. “I’ve lost the ability to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it.”

The computer is training us not to attend, to drown in the sea of information rather than to swim. Jackson thinks this can be fixed. The brain is malleable. Just as it can be trained to be distracted, so it can be trained to pay attention. Education and work can be restructured to teach and propagate the skills of concentration and focus. People can be taught to turn off, to ignore the beep and the ping.

And on that note, I’ll finish this post and turn to the other table in my room – the one with no keyboard on it, but with stacks of paper … There is a lot of tidying up to be done.

1 comment to Multitasking isn’t good for you

  • William Northey

    I could not agree more. People are loosing the ability to find the joy of being deeply absorbed in literature, music or even appreciating the countryside. To ‘loose oneself in a book’ was quite a common phrase when I was young, but I hardly ever hear that now.
    I work in quite a busy office and each member of staff have their own PC. I am about the only member of staff who switches off the sound. It is my stand against all the pings dings rings and other such nonsense sounds various PC’s emit. Oh they say to me ‘I need that noise to remind me to do… something’ Hah! where is their visual concentration? More to the point why do they need to do that task straight away thus breaking concentration of the task in hand, and also breaking the concentration of the other members of staff!