Technology and Multitasking

While looking over some articles for my future of literacy paper, I noticed something about the electronics we have today and multitasking.  The newer technology we have, the more we can do on them at once.  Like on almost any cell phone now, for instance, you can play a game and still receive text messages.  Not to mention the IPhone IPad and everything you can do on them.  Do you think this has contributed to the shift from deep attention to hyper attention cognitive style that Hayles is talking about in her paper?

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143 Responses to Technology and Multitasking

  1. cof6 says:

    I think that this has an impact on our change to hyper attention. Its easier to pay attention to so many different things at once. A person can play a game on the computer while watching a tv episode on hulu on another screen and text. Technology allows us to be able to do so many things at one time. I can listen to music while reading now. My attention is draw to two separate activities at one time. Technology has definitely altered the way people multitask and has made multitasking so much more important.

  2. sbelle says:

    I absolutely think that our technologies have helped facilitate, and perpetuate, this new age of hyperattention. Applying this emergent technology to our academic and personal lives, we have almost been forced to multi-task in everything we do these days. If we want to keep up with our friends, our families, pop culture, news, politics, and still get ahead in the academic world and the working world, we have to make sure that our calls can still come through while we play a game, chat with our friends, and listen to our music on our cell phones.

    While we’re at the library, we might as well print our our homework for next week, check facebook, and look at the basketball score. Even during classes, I find myself checking my i-touch or my phone for the definition of a word I don’t know or to look up something that my teacher reminded me of, that I want to further research. Where I used to write these things down to deal with later, I now feel that I’ll have even more to do later, and believe that it’s better to address things as they occur, throughout my day.

    I suppose all of this technology has made us more efficient (maybe), but it’s also created a lot more responsibility to keep up with everything at once, simply because we CAN. Just because we are able to multitask to the extreme, however, does that really mean that we should? I still haven’t completely decided. But with ever more technology springing forth into our world and into our psyches, I think it’s a question we had better keep asking.

  3. cinnabarhorse says:

    Hayles provides an important perspective on this issue. On page 189, he writes, “These studies also indicate that efficiency declines so significantly with multitasking that it is more time-efficient to do several tasks sequentially than attempt to do them simultaneously.” I looked up a few other sources to verify his claims, and there seems to be a consensus that multitasking is actually less efficient than its opposite (single-tasking?)

    If you’re interested, here’s an article on NPR:

    On a personal level, I’ve noticed dramatic differences between the time it takes me to write a paper single-tasking and multi-tasking. I learned back in high school that I work best when I shut out all distractions and come face-to-face with whatever I’m trying to write. Now when I compare my habits to friends who are constantly changing music on Pandora, IMing friends, scanning facebook, watching TV, eating, all at the same time, I consistently finish pages hours before they’ve even written the first paragraph. I don’t think I’m any smarter than my friends, but my writing habits are definitely more focused. There are myriad reasons for this discrepancy, but I think I can illustrate it pretty simply by comparing it to eating pie, or rather, three pies.

    Say you want to eat pie, but aren’t sure which flavor you want, blueberry, pecan, or pumpkin. Instead of eating one pie, you alternate between taking bites from each of them in a fixed order. Assuming that your rate of consumption is the same (that is, your bites per hour), how long will it take you to finish one of the three pies? The answer is three times as long! Actually, it would take even longer because you would have to switch your fork from one pie to the other.

    Now imagine you are trying to write three papers at the same time, working on each paper a little before moving to the next. Assuming you work on each of them for the same amount of time, how long will it take to finish one paper? Maybe three times as long, but probably a lot longer. Every time you switch to another paper, you have to remember your previous train of thought, remember what you’ve already said, etc. The paper probably won’t flow as well, either.

    Now imagine you are working on one paper, due tomorrow, while engaging in “multi-tasking” like checking your e-mail, writing on facebook, and watching TV. I can’t predict how you would distribute your time between these activities, but I bet the paper would only get a third, if not less. Thus, after one hour, you’ll have written a third of what you could have written had you not been “multi-tasking,” and all of the disadvantages of the previous example will still apply.

    I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a pretty crappy deal to me.

    As to the thought that not multitasking will make us less efficient or less competitive or less out of touch with the world, I think anyone who believes this needs to re-examine his or her time management practices and decide what the priorities are: writing applications to graduate school or growing fake crops on a computer screen.

  4. Dartagnan says:

    I think the grad school app vs fake crops on a screen is a great comment. The NPR article is really interesting, and there’s a lot going on there.
    However, I’m going to play devils advocate for multi-tasking for a little bit. One thing that comes up constantly in economics is opportunity cost. The basic idea is that the cost of doing any action is that you’re foregoing the benefit of another action. For example, the reason people don’t like writing papers isn’t that the paper itself is bad (though that can often be a painful process) but rather that instead of writing the paper, one could be eating, running, watching your favorite TV show, spending time with friends or a significant other, etc. My proposal would be that when people are multi-tasking, it isn’t a question of efficiency, but of having to pay that opportunity cost. Someone can be writing a paper while talking with a friend, and playing an online game with a significant other. In their mind, the opportunity cost is reduced to zero, or at least the most significant costs are reduced to zero.
    Yes, an action will take longer. But as was raised in class many times throughout this semester, more efficient is not always better. Let’s compare writing the paper to a long walk in the park. Or, maybe a better idea would be cleaning your bedroom. You could do what would be a painful process in 30 minutes. Or, you could make this process much less painful by having the Disney channel on in the background. It’s like the Eddie Izzard skit where he’s in Britain and is asking “Cake or Death?” In our example, what person would take 30 minutes of pain over 2 hours of pleasure?
    I guess the three remaining elements are quality, the total amount of tasks that could be completed, and a person’s personal indifference curve. Here’s a link to help you get the idea: ( For some people, they might prefer to have those 2 or 5 inefficient hours writing the paper while on facebook and still being in contact with their friends, rather than writing the paper in an hour, then going to the movies or going on a nice jog. Even though multi-tasking is inefficient, you have to consider the human psyche and choice as the primary drivers of how we’ll function. It’s almost a case of short and long term gratification.
    I’m still in favor of Deep Attention, but I think Multi-tasking can have a strong case.

    • cinnabarhorse says:

      I’m familiar with the concept of opportunity cost, and I know that in addition to the explicit opportunity cost economists (at least the good ones) also look at the hidden costs of an activity as well. Dumping produced water from natural gas drilling into the Mon river may make perfect economic sense, but anyone who looks into the hidden costs will realize that massive economic imbalances will occur from the pollution.

      These hidden costs are present in multitasking, too. You already listed one of them–the quality of the paper. Although some would argue with this assumption, I think it is fair to say that a paper written with deep attention will be more cohesive and coherent than one written with hyper attention. Allowing the brain to focus on one activity a time helps the writer remember the argument being presented, maintain a consistent flow and tone, and reduces tautology that occurs when the writer forgets what he’s already said.

      Another hidden cost is the mental state of the writer. You ask the question, “What person would take 30 minutes of pain over 2 hours of pleasure?” but this question, I think, misunderstands the nature of writing a paper. From my understanding, prolonging the time with multiple activities will not increase happiness, but will actually result in more suffering.

      I can use my roommate as an example, as he typifies exactly the type of person we are describing. Whenever he writes a paper, even a two page mini-essay, he stays up all night. He plays videogames, IMs with friends, surfs Facebook, and between those activities manages to squeeze out a (usually) poorly written, patch-work piece of writing. He is a very smart person, but his writing habits stab him in the back every time. The worst part of the experience, from times I’ve talked with him, is the omnipresent fact that he’s got to write this paper. So instead of spending an hour or two banging it out, he draws it out further and further, turning what could be akin to a quick, painful shot into a full-fledged session of self-torture. In this analysis, guilt is the hidden cost of multi-tasking, because the writer will always be thinking, “I’ve gotta write this paper.”

      One final hidden cost of this situation is sleep. I hear a lot of my peers say, “I never have time to sleep.” When inquired about their homework habits, they inevitably say, “No, I don’t just do homework. I listen to music, stalk people on Facebook, watch movies on youtube, watch TV, etc.” The end result is less sleep, which is not a pleasurable thing for most people.

      Something I should point out is that this argument assumes that most multi-tasking is not actually multi-tasking, in the sense of accomplishing several useful activities at once, but actually a euphemism for procrastination. Procrastination is great in moderation, but if we’re going to procrastinate we should at least call it what it is instead of putting big, floppy ears on a rat and calling it a bunny rabbit.

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