Dennis Baron is Professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Illinois. His book, A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution, looks at the evolution of communication technology, from pencils to pixels. In this post, also posted on Baron’s personal blog The Web of Language, he looks at multitasking in a digital world.
Most of my students belong to the digital generation, so they consider themselves proficient multitaskers. They take notes in class, participate in discussion, text on their cell phones, and surf on their laptops, not sequentially but all at once. True, they’re not listening to their iPods in class, and they may find that inconvenient, since they like a soundtrack accompanying them as they go through life. But they’re taking advantage of every other technology they can cram into their backpacks. They claim it helps them learn, even if their parents and teachers are not convinced.
Recently one of my students, a college senior, added to this panoply of technology an older form of classroom inattention: while I explored the niceties of English grammar, he was doing homework for another class. When I asked him to put away the homework and pay attention, he replied that he was paying attention, just multitasking to maximize efficiency. “I can multitask too,” I said, taking out my cell phone and starting to text as I went on with the lesson.
My students didn’t like this. They expected their teacher’s full attention, even if they weren’t going to give me theirs. Plus, they argued, “When you text, you have to stop talking so you can look at the keyboard. That’s not multitasking.” I was using a computer before most of them were born, but they were right, I can’t talk and text. Their pitying expressions said it all: too old to multitask. But what really got them was the thought that I might actually want to multitask, that I might be able to sneak in another activity while I was teaching them.
Although it’s gotten a lot of attention in the digital age, multitasking isn’t new, nor is it the sole property of the young. We commonly do two things at once — singing while playing an instrument, driving while talking to a passenger, surfing the web while watching TV. Despite the fact that a growing body of research suggests that multitasking decreases the efficiency with which we perform simultaneous activities, the idiom he can’t walk and chew gum at the same time shows that we expect a certain amount of multitasking to be normal, if not mandatory.
As for predigital, adult multitasking, office workers have been typing, answering phones, and listening to music, since, like, forever, without any loss of efficiency, except of course when Richard Nixon’s secretary, Rose Mary Woods, blamed the 18½ minute gap on one of the Watergate tapes on a multitasking mishap. Woods was listening to the tape and transcribing it when the phone rang. As she leaned over to answer the call, she accidentally pressed rec instead of stop on the tape player, while keeping her foot on the pedal that advanced the tape. The result was eighteen and a half minutes of literal Nixonian “expletives deleted.”
The explanation was greeted with skepticism. But since that time, advances in digital processing have allowed computer chips to perform several unrelated tasks simultaneously, and the proliferation of digital devices has extended the multitasking analogy to digitally-enhanced human activity. More and more of us simultaneously process words, Facebook, tweet, IM, text, play tunes, and Skype, with the TV going in the background. And some of us also blog. On the other hand, presidents no longer surreptitiously record conversations in the oval office, or so we’ve been led to believe.
While it has become popular to warn that multitasking is inefficient — who can focus with all that stuff going on? — or that it’s dangerous, as in the correlation between texting while driving and having an accident, it’s also clear that the more automatic an action becomes, the easier it is for us to combine it with something else — everything from walking and chewing gum to texting and crafting national security policy.
The research on multitasking suggests that multiple stimuli compete for attention in the brain, which could slow down decision-making or even make us ignore some inputs altogether: a recent experiment at Western Washington University showed that 75% of the pedestrians passing a busy part of the campus while talking on their cell phones failed to notice a clown riding by on a unicycle. Other experiments with driving simulators suggest that even with hands-free devices, talking on a cell phone may impair drivers’ reaction times about as much as drinking does.
And in another experiment, listening to one stimulus while watching another, unrelated, one, led to reduced brain activity when compared with listening alone or looking alone.
But while technology may distract us — please don’t text and drive, at least not when I’m nearby — multitasking isn’t necessarily melting our brains. In fact, according to research at the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging at Carnegie Mellon University, the reduced mental activity associated with some forms of multiple stimuli may be a sign that the tasks are becoming automatic, requiring less brain attention than they did when they were new. Once we’ve actually learned something and pushed it into the background, our brains can focus instead on what’s different, surprising, or unusual, like that clown riding by on a unicycle. Of course if the phone call is really, really interesting, we might not see the clown, or. the truck bearing down on us . . . .
When we first start multitasking, the brain is more engaged, but as we get used to the tasks and they become more familiar, less brain attention is required to perform them.
Even though multitasking could be the sign of a healthy brain responding to and manipulating the world around it, I’ve decided to give up trying to text while I teach. I did it once, to make a point about how students expect instructors to behave. Students already know that their instructors expect them to pay attention in class, and they’ve all mastered, to a greater or lesser degree, the art of at least seeming to pay attention, an art that I myself learned as a student sitting in class after class after class. What students don’t realize is that their teachers may also multitask so well that, even if they can’t talk and text at the same time, they can sometimes teach a whole class while their brains are far away, doing something else entirely.