Friday, December 11, 2009

A Nuanced View of Multi-tasking

Mark Bauerlein, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education's Brainstorm blog, has some interesting and nuanced things to say in the ongoing conversation about multi-tasking and the toll it may be taking on our ability to concentrate. Life in the Tech Lane is the name of his very nice essay, which you can link to without a special password. He includes a series of links out to other writers, including "Howard Rheingold entitled "Is Multitasking Evil? Or Are Most of Us Illiterate?" that asks for a middle ground in the discussion" at the Encyclopedia Brittannica blog with multiple posts on the issue of multi-tasking. Rheingold refuses the bait of assuming that multi-tasking is always making all multi-taskers less efficient, less thoughtful workers. He is a professor of journalism.

Is the discourse about multitasking falling into the fallacy of the excluded middle?

Could it be that instead of a stark choice between the frantic pursuit of getting more done in less time at one extreme or demonizing multitasking at the other end of the spectrum that there is an as-yet undocumented literacy in the relatively unexplored middle, a partially mental and partially technical skill at deploying the appropriate attentional style with the appropriate media at the appropriate time?

Or is multitasking unequivocally the mental equivalent of bingeing, an addiction to fragmentation, a seductive waste of mind we should discard, a habit that all decent people should eschew and discourage?

The overwhelming tone of contemporary discussion about this topic, buttressed by a growing body of empirical evidence, seems to favor the strong point of view that people today, and particularly those darn kids today, are driven to distraction, attracted by flashy and superficial media gimmickry, hypnotized and addicted, fragmented, disordered.

"I wonder: is something valuable to be found in the deep gulf between frenetic and hyperfocused?"I wonder – I don’t yet claim to know – is something valuable to be found in the deep gulf between frenetic and hyperfocused?

Don’t get me wrong – I’m alarmed at the way people neglect their situational attention while they are texting on the sidewalk, and am terrified of those I’ve seen texting while driving. I face university students in my classes on a regular basis who are gazing at their laptops while I or another student talks. As far as I can tell, these screen-tropic students might be taking notes or they might be rallying their guild in “World of Warcraft” or changing their Facebook status to “it’s complicated.” (snip)

I explore a number of attention probes with my students – sometimes I open the first class meeting by asking them to turn off their phones, shut their laptops, and close their eyes for a minute. Sometimes, only the two students who co-teach with me that week keep their laptops open. Sometimes, 20% of the class can have their laptops open at any one time, and it’s up to them to regulate their use. Always, I direct them to pay attention to where their attention is going when their laptops are open or the phones in their pockets buzz. So I’m not ignoring the lack of mindfulness associated with my students’ – and my own – use of all the screens of various sizes in our lives.

But I think it’s worth asking whether we can learn to use our digital mind amplifiers more effectively. Without a doubt, digital media are encouraging attention to go wild. But what if it could be tamed? Taming wild attention is the center of Buddhist practice, and recent books have delved into the application of Buddhist practices to mindfulness in contemporary life. I’m inquiring into the possibility of bring similar practices to life online. While there are ample reasons to consider the healthy alternative of spending time offline, for many – more each day – cyberspace is where we learn and work. (snip)

The issue that I confront with digital journalism students is relevant to all of us who dwell in the always-on milieu – the need to balance a defense against becoming overloaded by the overwhelming influx of mediated information with a need to know the most accurate and fresh information that will be professionally and personally useful. For a journalist, this is not only a personal need, but part of their duty. In that regard, I have been instructing them in a combination of mental discipline and technical skills that I call “Infotention.”

We are in charge of which information we pay attention to, but if we don’t actively construct, tune, and manage our own information filters, the raw flow of info, misinfo, and disinfo around us will take charge. It’s up to each consumer of information to make personal decisions about what to pay attention to and what to ignore. That decision-making is a mental process that all humans have always deployed in the world, but the world that we evolved in through pre-digital eons has been hyper-accelerated recently through our use of the media we’ve created. We need to attune those native attention filters to our contemporary needs. To those who know how to use them, a treasury of tools are available, free of charge, on the web. By knowing how to use search and persistent search, syndication of web-published material (”RSS”), and other Web services, journalists and others can set up dashboards and radars that tune in streams of information about specific subjects that come to the informed seeker as soon as it is published. Other web services can filter those incoming streams to reduce the flow still further to only those items that are most likely to be of interest.
Back to Bauerlein, who links to several other Brittanica essayists as well, before musing on other resources, which he thoughtfully links to. He finanally calls for some solutions of his own:

Create a renaissance of attention

* Question the values that undermine attention.

As Americans, we very often equate speed and impatience with getting things done and being successful. As librarians, we really know better. Bauerlein recognizes that slow, careful, difficult work is behind knowledge creation.

* Dial down the climate of distraction.

Bauerlein reports on IBM engineers who instituted "Think Fridays" three years ago, where they shut off e-mail, conference calls and meetings to focus on their patent work. Evidently, it was productive enough to be replicated, with more flexibility, in other teams and departments. I know other folks who do this in various ways -- shutting the door and turning off the ringer on the phone for a block of time to work on writing. Or covering for each other on the reference desk to work on scholarship.

I am glad to see some balance in the discussion about multi-tasking. I believe that when I see students doing multiple things at once, they are certainly managing them better than I would. But I do know that there are certain things, like thinking hard or reading deeply, that you cannot do and multi-task well. And I do worry, as Mr. Bauerlein points out, that we risk losing the skill of thinking deeply, reflecting and analyzing, if we do not teach it and practice it regularly. Now is the time to talk about it, before it is too late.

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