Sunday, October 31, 2010

Multitasking mediocrity...

Yes, the many, many media streams do indeed keep us in a constant state of imagined crisis. Fortunately it hasn't really affected me too much, probably because I was raised in the "deep attention" generation (I don't feel the need to answer every phone call, text message, or email as soon as it arrives). Twitter seems to be calling my name a little more often though, so perhaps there is hope.

A couple things I found interesting in both Hayles' reading and Stone's presentation were the cognitive shift(s) that are taking place. The human mind is a very complex machine and its ability to adapt to different environmental conditions is quite remarkable. Now I understand better why some people think differently than me.

Growing up I remember my occupations were watching television (one of only three channels), listening to music, practicing piano, talking on the phone or playing with friends, and doing homework. All of these activities were centered on the activity itself. The word "multitasking" had yet to be coined (at least to my knowledge) and distractions were rare. I sat in solitude while I did my homework or practiced my piano, deeply attending to the completion of the activity at hand. It wasn't until years later that the concept of "multitasking" became the buzzword that it is today.

My definition of "multitasking" is being able to simultaneously work on multiple tasks while also being able to give each task the concentration it requires as if it were the only task being attended to. It's not merely a matter of doing two or more things at one time. Multitasking requires a total and complete shift in mindset in order for multitasking to be successful.

In other words, if someone claims they are multitasking, the result of each completed task must be of equal quality as if they had each been attended to in succession rather than simultaneously. For example, a fifteen year old is hired to keep the score of a basketball game. This activity in itself takes a good amount of undivided attention. However, while s/he is supposed to be keeping score, s/he is also texting with friends. When confronted, the teen says, "I can multitask", even though the purpose of the confrontation was the frequent inaccuracy of the score. In this example, multitasking clearly does not work because the quality of one of the tasks has been compromised.

This is where I become cynical when discussing this trend toward a culture of multitasking. My cynicism lies in the question of details that could become lost due to lack of deep attention? Will "Generation M" understand that certain things require more attention than others, while still other matters require complete attention?

The thing I find most interesting in Hayles' article is when the topic of AD/HD enters into the conversation, drawing links between "hyper" attention and the aforementioned cognitive disorder. I understand the commonalities, however one is a biological disorder while the other appears to be a cultural malfunction. We do not have control over the amount of media  available to us. We do, however, have control over how much of that media we allow our children to consume. If an otherwise non-AD/HD child has to take Ritalin in order to perform well in school, there is something very wrong.

Good parenting requires regulating a child's consumption of anything that could be detrimental to that child's welfare, including over-consumption of media. Is it necessary to give children mobile phones with texting or internet capabilities? The current issues of "sexting" and "cyberbullying" could be limited if these options were not made available to kids under the age of 18. Similarly, a regulation such as this would put the purpose of the mobile phone into perspective for this age group.

Taking this idea a step further, why are social networking sites made available to kids under the age of 18? Furthermore, why do parents allow their children to participate on these sites at home? I believe the responsibility begins and ends with the parents. There are reasons for age restrictions, all having to do with the ability to handle the responsibilities that go along with the privilege.

A cultural shift is obviously taking place and I do find it intriguing. To imply, as Halyes does in her article, that "Children growing up in media-rich environments literally have brains wired differently than humans who did not come to maturity in such conditions" is simply fascinating. Additionally, as Hayles mentions, it is a condition that educators will have to come to terms with in order to be effective in their roles. A compromise between the two polarities of "hyper" attention and "deep" attention would indeed be an ideal scenario, and if educators could establish and maintain such a condition I think real progress could be made.

Therefore, I think what lies beneath these issues is perhaps thinking in terms of teaching our children how to manage a media-rich environment. A system might look like this: Kindergarten through 12th grade - limited forms of media are used for educational purposes only. Undergraduate settings - embrace previously limited forms of media in order to teach students how to use them both responsibly and professionally. A system like this would in no way discount the relevance of technology; it would simply impress the importance of different media tools in the right place and at the right time.

In reality, technology is nothing more than a set of tools. A powerful set of tools which, through continued progress, will provide great possibilities for not only our generation, but for all future generations to come. Technology is also changing our culture, creating opportunities and efficiencies our forefathers could not have imagined. But like every other set of tools, the proper uses of technology must also be taught. If we don't start these teachings at a young age by incrementally focusing on the situational pros and cons of each type of attention, progress could potentially give way to an over-stimulated culture of self-indulged mediocrity. A mediocrity hidden behind the more politically correct guise of multitasking.


  1. Carol,

    I remember growing up, despite our family getting our first computer when I was in first grade, that there were many educational computer programs that began to creep up as I went through elementary school and on up. These were aids to my learning and generally fun as well. That being said, I never multi-tasked when I was younger. I would do my homework, study for a quiz or test, etc, etc. I think the first time I began to really multi-task was when I would on occasion, while doing homework on the computer, leave my AOL up and Instant Message with a couple of friends!

  2. Great post. I don't think all multi-tasking is equal. Linda Stone highlighted the differences between simple and complex multi-tasking. I noticed that some of examples we gave during the class discussion as multi-tasking could be simple multi-tasking... doing homework while listening to music (for example) could be classified as simple multi-tasking as opposed to doing homework while texting or instant messaging (in Alan's case) which I think would be complex multi-tasking.

  3. This was a great post, Carol! I agree that much of how kids are has much to do with how they are brought up, and I very much agree that the parents should in most cases take more responsibility in limiting their children's exposure to media. I wasn't allowed to watch TV or anything until my homework is done, but I don't think that rule is followed by everyone else nowadays.

  4. It was common for parents to punish their children by taking away their phone privileges. Or, they were confined to their rooms...pretty much whatever it took to isolate them, and break connections with friends.

    Writing notes were such no-no's and caused a lot of drama too for young children. Bathroom walls were also pretty popular communication platforms too. That's 20th Century version of today's 21st century Digital Bullying.

    Granted, notes, phone calls and bathroom walls are not as sensory driven, yet children will need to learn how to navigate these well as learn social implications and consequences.

    Like you mentioned yourself, a lot of today's technology are tools. Mastery of these tools can certainly benefit their adult lives. Today's technology isn't exclusively an entertainment platform. There's communication, access to knowledge, exposure to culture, art, and a variety of other skills that allow growing minds to explore ways to express themselves.

    Moderation will always help and benefit children; but some type of legislation seems extreme. Parents who do not monitor their children's online activities are no different then parents who do not monitor their children's eating habits either. It is a shame some children are being raised by technology, but still...

    As I'm writing this, my television is on, I'm listening to NPR and nibbling on some grapes. If there was silence, I'd be so distracted, I would not be able to focus on this response and be productive. I can't run long distances without a killer sound track playing in my ears and stunning visual sites to inspire me to keep on going. Getting ready for work in th morning is a struggle if I don't have the news playing in the background. Silence freaks me out!!!

  5. I think what can be considered a "proper use" of technology is up for debate. A man like Greg Gillis (Girl Talk) spent time doing what at the time equated to toying around with music on his computer... and now he can arguably considered a professional in the music industry. Sports aficionados who do nothing but post to discussion boards on their favorite athletes all day can now find paying jobs writing those very same articles for high-traffic websites. The definition of proper use shouldn't necessarily equate to the widely accepted use of the technology. I think what is more important is a beneficial outcome, ideally to both the individual and society as a whole.