Both Jim Taylor’s, “The Power of Prime” and Alina Tugent’s, “Multitasking Can Make You Lose… Um … Focus” take interesting looks at how people are reacting to the growing digital age and claims that people have developed short attention spans due to the magnitude of gadgets in their possession. Tugent of the New York Times even confessed to checking her email as she was writing her article. She referred in her piece to a 2005 study, “No Task Left Behind? Examining the Nature of Fragmented Work,” which stated people change tasks about once every 11 minutes and it takes them approximately 25 minutes to return to the previous project.
These are significant findings because according to Taylor, a Ph.D. in technology, people consider themselves multitaskers, but he asks how that can be when the average lag time between each task is so significant. Taylor cited research by the American Psychological Association that claims people take approximately 40 percent longer to complete tasks because they are “multitasking.” He goes on to say that while people consider themselves multitaskers, it is usually impossible to complete more than one task at a time because our brains aren’t capable.
He explains that while we may think we are performing more than one task at a time, we are finishing one task and then moving on to several more before returning to the original task or finding another. Taylor claims the only way we can actually complete more than one task at a time is by learning a task to the point where it is automatic, such as walking, then combining it with a task that is less engrained in one’s head, such as learning how to text.
Taylor also argues that the language center of the brain can’t retain information from two tasks simultaneously. For example, listening to lyrical music while having a conversation is technically multitasking, but he questions whether we are really processing information from both tasks.
While most of what Taylor wrote seems unarguable, I can disagree with the idea that the language center of the brain is monotone. For example, a person sometimes has a song in his head after having a conversation with someone he was walking through a store with. The store was playing a popular song at the time of an engaging conversation. Perhaps some people have never experienced this phenomenon, but this writer can think of situations when he experienced just that. This proves that the brain can process language-related information simultaneously. However, it would be interesting to investigate the ability of a person to recall a song that they have never heard, while walking through a store during a conversation — because once the song is engrained inside a person’s head, it may be triggered in an area outside of the language center of the brain, qualifying it under Taylor’s first condition of a true multitask: “… at least one of the tasks is so well learned as to be automatic, meaning no focus or thought is necessary to engage in the task.” Or, if the language center is processing both the conversation and the song, the example disproves Taylor’s theory that the language center of the brain can only retain information from one task. A thorough scientific experiment that can detect the activated areas of the brain would inform the reader for certain. Unfortunately, the study doesn’t exist.
Taylor goes on to say that while some people may consider what they are doing to be multitasking, they are actually “… stepping on the gas then hitting the brakes, over and over.”
It can be argued against Taylor’s claims, however, that with increased efficiency of transitioning from task to task, a person can, theoretically, efficiently multitask over a given time period. For example, if a person were faced with the tasks of writing an article, checking his email and doing the laundry, he could finish them all over the course of say, an hour, and he can be efficient while completing the tasks. As long as our subject transitions from task to task immediately, he isn’t wasting any time and, over the course of that hour, he is multitasking by the very fact that he is completing more than one task.
Taylor would consider the previous example as “serial tasking.” For example, a person switches from task to task when, in fact, they think they are completing the tasks at the same time. But by definition, does a person have to be doing the tasks at the exact same time for him to be multitasking, or is it acceptable under the definition, as in the previous example, to be completing several tasks within a specific timeframe?
One could also argue that he may become more efficient by becoming engaged in successive tasks. For example, he can become disinterested at the task of writing an article after half an hour. However, if he were to write the article for 15 minutes, then put a load of laundry in the washing machine and then return to finish the article, his brain could be kept in high gear. The process of washing his clothes is much like a race car driver making a pit stop. The same can be said for checking his emails.
But according to research from the American Psychological Association, Taylor notes, the average person isn’t efficient at switching from task to task. I argue that some people are very efficient, and as people become more familiar with the technology, they could evolve into a more effective way of multitasking. After all, even screwing in Edison’s first light bulb took some time.
The digital age has clearly increased the ease of access to information. And all this is held at the palm of our hands. People can check football scores, their stock performances, the weather and GPS directions, all while they are working, or in this writer’s case, completing a school assignment. The fast transfer of information that the digital age has introduced has led to short attention spans, as claimed by Taylor and Tugent — and this author can confirm those facts by the look on his date’s face when she realizes all her words have fallen on deaf ears because the person sitting across the table from her is checking sports scores on his iPhone.
The iPhone, a perfect model for the digital age. With more than half a million apps and counting, the device provides its owner with various games and tools, all on one shining device. This easy access to information has made the average person quite bored and has sent him searching for more things to do. So is it multitasking, or is it multiboredom?
As people are welcomed by a mountain of information that has been reduced to bite-sized pieces, we may be just starting the path to developing efficiency in processing knowledge. Like a baby learning how to stack blocks to form a pyramid, people need to evolve with the challenges of learning a new era of media. But before we know it, our pyramids will be stacked like the Pyramids of Egypt.