It seems every year for the past several years there’s been a couple of weeks where there is a flurry of intelligent articles about the dangers of multitasking and the hivemind. Then the inevitable blowhardization of the subject sets in, the intelligent voices fade and the Grandpa Simpsons come out of the woodwork. And we wait another year for the subject to get back on track, hoping next year will be the year that we can sustain a rational discussion about these core issues without falling into techno-utopianism or decline of civilization hyperbole.
I’m not sure that year is upon us yet, but the latest crop of articles out has made for one of the more enjoyable weekends of reading I’ve had in some time.
Nick Carr, my favorite IT contrarian, writes one of the best summaries of the issues of the hivemind I’ve seen, and offers some new insights to boot.
Get past the title (for some reason Carr is addicted to titles that undercut the nuance of his articles). The article is actually strongest when it is not focussing on Google, and in fact the discussion of Google’s particular influence is the one place where the article almost comes off the rails. In particular, I’m not completely sure the argument that the CPM/CPC structure of web financing exhibits a uniquely pernicious influence on the structure of the web is correct. Haven’t print media in general, and magazines in particular, been using similar models for a century now? I’m willing to buy the argument in a smaller dose, I suppose — I have to guess that the advent of the magazine (as replacing the journal) had some deletorious effects on attention, and began the reward system for page flipping that we now see in spades on the Internet.
But as for the rest of the article, it’s very good, and models precisely the sort of end-to-end depth of argument that the web may be eroding. Get past the title and read it, it’s the sort of article you’ll love even if you disagree with it (and I do disagree with quite a bit of it).
Christine Rosen’s essay is more pedestrian fare, but as an example of the argument that seems to emerge once a year on multitasking it’s a wonderfully compact iteration. There’s a good layperson level overview of some of the recent science, some discussion of the cost to business, and of course, some talk about the effect on our personal lives.
And among other things, it contains this little nugget:
In one recent study, Russell Poldrack, a psychology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that “multitasking adversely affects how you learn. Even if you learn while multitasking, that learning is less flexible and more specialized, so you cannot retrieve the information as easily.” His research demonstrates that people use different areas of the brain for learning and storing new information when they are distracted: brain scans of people who are distracted or multitasking show activity in the striatum, a region of the brain involved in learning new skills; brain scans of people who are not distracted show activity in the hippocampus, a region involved in storing and recalling information. Discussing his research on National Public Radio recently, Poldrack warned, “We have to be aware that there is a cost to the way that our society is changing, that humans are not built to work this way. We’re really built to focus. And when we sort of force ourselves to multitask, we’re driving ourselves to perhaps be less efficient in the long run even though it sometimes feels like we’re being more efficient.”
It’s always tempting to riff off of science nuggets like this in inappropriate ways. But that skills vs. knowledge distinction in evaluating multitasking seems fertile ground, even apart from what the fMRIs may say.
It’s worth noting The New Atlantis is tied to the conservative think-tank the Ethics and Public Policy Center — worth noting because although Rosen’s article is pretty clean of conservative baggage, these things very quickly fall into specific political ruts. There is a larger frame that some would like to advance — that if we just go back to reading what we’re told, maybe the Great Books front to back, everything’s going to come up roses. That is, the question of multitasking ultimately plugs into some people’s lack of comfortability with the hoi polloi being in the driver’s seat, and an uncomfortability with hierarchical lines disappearing in general.
I’m not sure why that has to be, but it’s inevitable that the Sean Hannity’s of the world will be gloating in the coming month over the Myth of Multitasking, as if this is some victory for God, guns, and Reagan. I’d like to figure out why — if we could peel that part of the debate off, we’d get a lot further with this…