(Image Courtesy of W.W. Norton)"If, in fact, we spend an hour or two online sending text messages, and we shut that off and then we spend three hours reading "Moby Dick", that would be one thing. But what we're seeing is for most of us, and particularly for young people in their 20's and 30's, being online and doing all the sorts of fun and beneficial things we do when we're online or sending text messages or other messages is crowding out the time that we spend, not only reading longer works. But also, just sitting, and thinking and paying attention and being able to concentrate".
--Nicholas Carr on NPR's "All Thing's Considered"
-Last month, in The Wall Street Journal, writer Nicholas Carr wrote an essay entitled "Don't Burn Your Books--Print is Here to Stay". Carr makes the argument that digital books will coexist with traditional print, rather than replacing printed materials altogether, as some have predicted. “There’s something about a crisply printed, tightly bound book that we don’t seem eager to let go of”, says Carr. However, it is Carr's sincere message that challenges the very existence of "multitasking" that recently caught my attention.
-What I found fascinating is that Carr, a Pulitzer Prize finalist of 2011 and author of the book, "The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains", appeared as a featured speaker at Google's inaugural Atmosphere Conference in London. I should also mention, in this regard, that prior to the book, he authored the essay, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" In fact, Carr is a sought after keynote speaker who has traveled the world with his cautious message about our need to better balance technology and the human brain with common sense that is gaining attention.
With the immediacy of information available to us over the Internet, and through any number of information applications (known as "apps"), Carr outlines, in his book, his theory that the human brain is subjected to cognitive overload in the workplace. One of the practical implications that becomes "short circuited", according to Carr, is the formation of long-term memory. To those who dismiss the importance of remembering key information by extolling the virtues of merely accessing a Google computer search on any given topic, Carr states that there is a price to be paid.
-The "Switching Costs" of Multitasking
The process of transferring and consolidating that information from working memory to long-term memory that enables us to make the connections between facts, experiences learned, and emotions we've established internally, are in direct conflict with the commonly held belief that "multitasking" allows us to be more productive. To the contrary, Carr states that what we are actually doing is constantly interrupting one task and refocusing on another. As we strive to adapt our minds toward assimilating massive amounts of information with this repetitive distraction, the process of transferring information from working memory to long term memory negatively affects the emotions that we've come to associate with the richness and emotional depth of our thinking. According to Carr, increasing research is revealing that as we shift bits of information in this manner all day long, we begin to assimilate information in a "reactive" manner, and lose the ability to filter out what is important. Experimental psychologists refer to this unproductive state as "switching costs"--the phenomenon that occurs whenever we shift the focus of our attention from one task to another.
-Is Multitasking A Myth?
According to Carr, tests reveal that a person's productivity, long after their computer screens are turned off, is lower than those people who remain focused on one task at a time. His conclusion is that there really is no such thing as "multitasking"--doing two things simultaneously. What we call "multitasking" is merely shifting our focus very quickly, and as Carr submits, the price we pay is to incur "switching costs"--the need to realign our thinking with a new task. This process begins all over again with the resumption of yet another task that wipes away any productivity gains from the previous task. His answer? To pay attention and to be able to filter out distraction to get the most out of the powerful information technologies available to us, we have to ultimately develop the skill in turning those technologies off.
-In a marketplace that prides itself on becoming more productive with fewer people, it's permissible to ask ourselves to what extent our quality of lives are being affected. Moreover, Carr's argument concludes that our concept of "multitasking" is actually creating a world that is becoming less productive with personal consequences.