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Why do we multitask?

Recently, I was asked a good question – why are we as a nation addicted to multitasking? – by Mike Hoyt, the editor of Columbia Journalism Review, and I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on this topic.

To preface, let’s just say that this topic couldn’t be more important now. A number of people have been pointing out the links between my book, with its sub-title flagging a dark age, and the economic mess we are in. An overdependence on our machinery as an outsourced brain, a tendency to undercut our powers of focus and attention, a yearning for the instant, push-button answer rather than the hard work of problem-solving – these are some of the reasons why we face such a deep, steep economic dive.

And then there’s the multitasking. Let’s take a look at the blind love of multitasking in our culture today.

First, I think that we can trace a line between our economic habits and culture and the legacy of Frederick W. Taylor, the great efficiency expert. His influence on global capitalism is still enormous. There’s a section in the book that gives detail, but in brief, he forced workers to chop up work into almost interchangable parts in order to make each piece of a task go faster. In turn, his influential teachings eviscerated the organic quality of craftsmanship and in many senses, turned people into machines, as Peter Drucker and others have noted.

     A second reason why we’re addictied to multitasking stems from the human experience of time in the past two centuries. In medieval times, people learned to mark time with the widespread adoption of the mechanical clock. In the industrial era, inventions such as the phonograph, cinema, telegraph etc seemed to give people the ability to control time – to stop, start and preserve a moment. The critic Walter Benjamin and other greats have written about this.
 In my view, we now are entering an era of post-clock time, in which we ignore the rhythms of sun and season, try to supercede our biological limitations through 24/7 living, and finally, endeavor to surpass clock time by layering the moment – by doing two or more things at once. Multitasking is quite simply seen as the ticket to productivity, even though it’s actually quite inefficient in terms of accuracy and speed. 
   Last, multitasking is part of a wider value system that venerates speed, frenetic activity, hyper-mobility etc as the paths to success. That’s why the almost clinically hyperactive executive is seen as the successful leader, and why the kid with the first hand up in the classroom is seen as the smart guy. And that’s why we’re willing to drive like drunks or work in frenzied ways, although it literally might kill us.
   That’s a bit on why we multitask, and why this addiction has spelled trouble. Still, the good news is: I’m seeing a real culture shift toward a questioning of these cultural values and habits!
    I’ll return to this topic soon.
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  1. Nov 2, 20085:44 am