The word “multitasking” has firmly rooted itself as the primary descriptor used to refer to the task-juggling and attention-switching that is part and parcel of the hyperconnected lifestyle. Multitasking is a common act among today’s teens and 20s set. The semantics of the word have been argued, with many saying it is not possible to perform multiple tasks simultaneously.
“Regarding the word ‘multitasking,’ cognitive, behavioral, and neurological sciences are moving toward a consensus that such a state does not actually exist in the human brain,” observed emerging technology designer Annette Liska. “We may make many quick ‘thoughts’ in succession, but human performance in any activity that is done without focus (often termed ‘multitasking’) is of significantly lower quality, including an absence of quality and consciousness. The word unfortunately perpetuates a false ideal of the human capacity to perform and succeed.”
Devra Moehler, a communications faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania, shared research resources. “Eyal Ophir (Stanford) and others [have shown] the effects of multitasking are negative, even for those who think they are good at it. Matt Richtel wrote about this topic in the 2010 New York Times article Your Brain on Computers: Attached to Technology and Paying a Price and Helene Hembrooke and Geri Gay wrote in 2003 for the Journal of Computing in Higher Education The Laptop and the Lecture: The Effects of Multitasking in Learning Environments. The desire for constant stimulation and task switching is being inculcated in our youth, but not necessarily the ability to manage multitasking effectively to get more done. The end result will be negative. Concentration and in-depth thought may be skills that are rare, and thus highly valued in 2020.”
“I agree with all of those who say that multitasking is nothing more than switching endlessly from one thought to another—no one can think two things at once—but I don’t agree that this kind of attention-switching is destructive or unhealthy for young minds,” added Susan Crawford, professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and formerly on the White House staff. “It’s just the way the world works now, and digital agility is a basic skill for everyone. At the same time, I have hopes for my students: I hope they'll discover the flow experience of reading long-form works and won't need distraction in order to concentrate; I hope they'll go on finding ways to hang out that are meaningful and don’t involve devices.”
Nikki Reynolds, director of instructional technology services at Hamilton College, said studies indicate that young people are not truly multitasking. “They are ‘time slicing’,” she responded. “A few seconds of attention to the phone, now switch to the homework, now the TV, now back to the phone. This means it takes them longer to complete any one task, such as their homework. It also appears to affect the quality of their work. However, in my experience as a manager of only a few people, all of whom must interact daily with many more people, I am beginning to believe that this time slicing will become a skill that will help young people manage adult life better. The number of people who need our attention to answer a quick question or connect them to some resource is growing rapidly, and this requires me and my team to spend a lot of time switching contexts as part of our jobs. We touch a lot of people for brief little bits of time, in an unpredictable stream of interactions. I suspect the kids will be fine.”
Gina Maranto, a co-director in the graduate program at the University of Miami, said information multitasking is not a new phenomenon. “My father, a corporate editor, used to watch television, read magazines, and listen to the radio at the same time long before computers, cellphones, or iPads,” she said. “On the whole, I believe access to information and to new techniques for manipulating data (e.g., visualization) enhance learning and understanding rather than negatively impact them. Like Diderot's encyclopedia, which freed up knowledge that had been locked in guilds, the internet and World Wide Web have freed up knowledge that was locked in proprietary databases, archives, and other difficult-to-access sources—and this has far-flung implications, not just educational but socioeconomic and cultural ones. The best students will use these technologies to carry out higher-level cognitive tasks.”
Communications consultant Stowe Boyd says new studies may be showing us that multitasking is actually quite possible. “There is recent evidence (published by researchers Jayson Watson and David Strayer) that suggests that some people are natural ‘supertaskers’ capable of performing two difficult tasks at once, without loss of ability on the individual tasks,” he wrote. “This explodes the conventional wisdom that ‘no one can really multitask,’ and by extension the premise that we shouldn't even try. The human mind is plastic. The area of the brain that is associated with controlling the left hand, for example, is much larger in professional violinists. Likewise, trained musicians listen to music differently, using more centers of the brain, than found in non-musicians. To some extent this is obvious: we expect that mastery in physical and mental domains will change those master's perceptions and skills. But cultural criticism seems to want to sequester certain questionable activities—like video gaming, social networking, multitasking, and others—into a no-man's-land where the plasticity of the human mind is negative. None of these critics wring their hands about the dangerous impacts of learning to read, or the intellectual damage of learning a foreign language. But once kids get on a skateboard, or start instant messaging, it’s the fall of Western civilization.”
Boyd said it seems as if the social aspects of Web use frighten many detractors, adding, “But we have learned a great deal about social cognition in recent years, thanks to advances in cognitive science, and we have learned that people are innately more social than was ever realized. The reason that kids are adapting so quickly to social tools online is because they align directly with human social connection, much of which takes place below our awareness. Social tools are being adopted because they match the shape of our minds, but yes, they also stretch our minds based on use and mastery, just like martial arts, playing the piano, and badminton.”