Is multi-tasking and modern information technology bad for us?

by on June 9, 2010 at 7:12 am in Education, Web/Tech | Permalink

Here is one litany of complaints.  Nicholas Carr speaks to the issue and he recommends this summary piece, to defend his view that the internet is in some regards making our thoughts less focused and more superficial.

I've read the piece and I don't yet see the evidence.  There are plenty of studies where the experimenter imposes his or her own version of multitasking on the participants and then sees their performance fall.

I'm simply not convinced or even moved in my priors by these studies.  I can't operate a German Waschmaschine (imposed on me), and that's without an internet connection running in the background.  Nor would I do well if confronted by, say, the open internet windows of Brad DeLong, or his devices, whatever they may be, and in the broader scheme of things surely he counts as intellectually close to me.  Yet overall my life runs quite smoothly.

To sound intentionally petulant, the only multitasking that works for me is mine, mine, mine!  Until I see a study showing that self-chosen multi-tasking programs lower performance, I don't see that the needle has budged.

I do see stronger evidence (as cited) that video games make people more aggressive.  I also see overwhelming evidence that the internet gets people to read and write more.  The latter is probably a good thing.  I also believe the internet leads to less interest in long novels and more interest in non-fiction.  I won't judge that one, but it's misleading to cite only the decline of interest in long novels and by the way don't forget Harry Potter, the form is hardly dead.

I do, by the way, ban laptops in my smaller classes.  But that's paternalism, and the desire to produce a class-level publc good, not fear of my students' cognitive decline.  I can well imagine that they are processing more information, and doing it more effectively, when they are not listening to me, and the other students, so intently.

For extensions of my argument, see my book Create Your Own Economy, soon to be released in paperback with the new and superior title The Age of the Infovore.

1 m June 9, 2010 at 7:33 am

The original title is better.

2 sean June 9, 2010 at 8:02 am

While the internet has provided me an avenue to information that was once prohibitively costly for us lazy, I feel an increasing difficulty in penetrating any issue further than its bloggy veneer.

I think, maybe, you and people among your generation developed the effective habits needed to sometimes wrestle with an issue that might be hidden deep within an obfuscated 400 page passage.

But as I read more and more blogs, my ability to sit down and really get to the juice of an issue is becoming increasingly difficult. While I still devour many news paper, i have even noticed that articles as well have become more arduous and intimidating- if only because I am becoming so accustomed to 2-3 paragraphs per idea.

I know you love this shit. and I do too…but I think it has some real costs for the regular human beings who cant read 2 books a night.

3 r4i gold June 9, 2010 at 8:14 am

No i don’t think that it is bad for us in any way. Multitasking is great job and modern information gives us way to do well. I prefer because of modern information our efficiency of work is really increased.

4 wander June 9, 2010 at 8:44 am

Action video games allow more reflection than many other forms of media. A player can always find a safe spot and put the controller down. In fact, games like Shadow of the Colossus actively encourage players to contemplate the act of violence.

5 Michael Heller June 9, 2010 at 8:50 am

I think I agree with Tyler that effective multitasking is necessarily subjective. It’s not a model you can propose. An effective test of multitasking would need to specify a goal and a time frame, but give freedom of choice among means or media to achieve the end. For example it could be specified that six of a total of twelve media should be used at least once during the period, and three of them must be used simultaneously throughout. That allows the person being tested to gravitate towards their comparative advantage.

The reason I have never stopped to read Brad DeLong is the disorder on his website, yet he would probably see it as very ordered. It’s not uncommon for someone who keeps card and clipping files as well as shelves of filofaxes on different topics each subdivided alphabetically or by subsystem leaping across disciplines and operating simultaneously out of offices in different countries never to be able to figure out the washing machine or the digital radio or the computer even with a heavily annotated and bookmarked manual lying permanently alongside.

A traditional education might help or hinder an internet novice’s ability to discern depth and prioritize surfaces. I’m not sure yet. Either way it’s something that has to be learnt, and that can take time. For example I’m relearning on the iPad. Traditional multitasking is more difficult on iPad because you can’t keep screens open simultaneously. But on the other hand the apps give you even greater choice, focus, and compactness. I find myself finishing/filing a task on one screen before moving on to the next, because I just *know* that 10 minutes later I may have forgotten where I started.

Sorry, I’m lost, what was the topic?

6 VA Classical Liberal June 9, 2010 at 8:57 am

The evidence of video games making players more aggressive (especially the link to Columbine-like acts of extreme violence) is non-existent.

The studies which have been done typically have the subject play a violent or non-violent video game, then test how likely the player is to punish another person (monetary penalty, bad review, etc.) in a follow-on interaction. That’s a far cry from showing that video games make you more likely to commit real acts of aggression, with real consequences, outside the laboratory.

7 KDeRosa June 9, 2010 at 9:29 am

Here’s a good video from cognitive scientist, Dan Willingham, on multitasking. “There’s always a cost of doing things simultaneously/” Attention is not shared between tasks; it is switched.

8 babar June 9, 2010 at 9:53 am

i am going to figure out how to securitize consciousness, sell subprime thinking to the masses, and short the equity tranche.

9 Vinnie June 9, 2010 at 10:13 am

Ooh… Does this mean my hardcover “Create Your Own Economy” is a collector’s item?

10 Michael Foody June 9, 2010 at 10:41 am

It is a difficult, important, and poorly understood skill to create a habbit/ environment condusive to effectively processing information. I think Tyler is probably a dramatic outlier in his ability to deal with the fact that there is a fire hose from which to drink from. Him dismissing the problem is sort of like a naturally thin person dismissing peoples difficulties with maintaining a healthy weight (I’m guessing).

I know that I need to try and manipulate myself into avoiding enticing but ultimately unsatisfying distractions in order to accomplish useful tasks or even to engage in satisfying leisure.

11 ewe June 9, 2010 at 11:15 am

The political parties have already done much of what you propose, in a way.

12 jrod June 9, 2010 at 11:24 am

Wouldnt case studies help control for this?

13 Michele June 9, 2010 at 12:29 pm

I will admit that I cannot process long papers IIF I read them in a browser. However, I read novels with the same intensity and ability to absorb that I always have and I’ve been using the internet for as long as it has existed, which may mean that I’m old enough to have developed those skills before the internet. I have found that being away from academe has made me less tolerant of certain ways of discussing issues. I am no longer interested, but honestly never was but had to read those papers for class.

I maintain my interest in fiction over non-fiction, but that’s lifelong. I actually find that reading on my computer screen, but with “Kindle” for my computer, I still finish novels as quickly as I always have.

I read information from cluttered websites in an RSS reader. I don’t usually notice whether Mr. DeLong or Mr. Cowen are cluttered, because I don’t see their websites.

I guess I’m saying is that I’ve decided that we need better studies, rather than I’ve made up my mind.

P.S. I’m sure “Perate” is a typo for operate.

14 Tom Grey June 9, 2010 at 2:19 pm

Most internet use (besides porn and game playing) is

Just like watching the news on TV during the Vietnam War was. (And the good guys couldn’t seem to win; so losing/changing the channel seemed the right thing to do, even if it did lead to Killing Fields).

What is the output? I’m not even writing much on my own blog anymore, much less a book.
For those who maybe have only 1 or 2 Great Ideas (like me? Tax Loans, Full Employment companies?), maybe the multi-tasking is bad because it’s an excuse to avoid the work of turning an idea into a policy or book or intejecting it into the Net.
For those who have many Great Ideas, the multi-tasking issue becomes one of whether their own style of multi-tasking is effective at expanding their influence (good), or is more diluting it (bad).
For those who have few ideas they’d be willing to call Great, the increased fun of more ideas more quickly is better than concentrating longer, to no great purpose anyway, on fewer ideas.

I usually like Clay Shirky more than Carr.

15 agnostic June 9, 2010 at 3:53 pm

Most of that article is not about the perils of being tethered to technology but of being lassoed by other human beings via communication technology.

No one would refer to a guy who spends all day in his private woodworking shop or fixing up and polishing his car as a slave to technology.

It’s only when the technology is a means for other people to keep butting into your life, or where you’re tempted to keep peering in on theirs, that we get the screwed-up behavior profiled in the article. Cell phones, most of the internet (forums, twitter, blogs, newspapers, etc.), email, instant messaging, and so on.

If you want a more enjoyable life, you have to unplug yourself from the hordes of people, not from some gizmo.

16 Aaron June 9, 2010 at 4:32 pm

There are easier tests that prove that multitasking is not working as well as some might think. See the following talk for some interesting (and amusing) examples.

17 Edward Burke June 9, 2010 at 8:48 pm

“Multitasking: the ability to do several things poorly at one time, while diminishing the ability to do a single thing well.”

18 Max June 10, 2010 at 4:18 am

Dunno about aggressiveness due to video games. I certainly am less aggressive after playing video games. And here is a father letting his 4-year old getting accustomed to video games and he choses the peaceful route:

19 matt. June 10, 2010 at 9:59 am

this touches on the rewiring of the brain due to technology.

The Secret Powers of Time

pretty interesting, all of it.

20 Vincent Clement June 10, 2010 at 11:18 am

Mr. Carr’s 15 minutes of fame are up. Stop giving him the time of day.

21 Jens Fiederer June 11, 2010 at 1:07 pm

Cognerd: Computers also have performance costs when they task switch…it’s actually a pretty good parallel (for single processor/single core machines, at least – I supect that is what Ben Ho meant with “for the most part”). We just don’t always notice.

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23 Best Web Hosting July 16, 2010 at 11:53 am

No I don’t think multitasking is a bad thing as is beneficial for progress but definitely think the nature of video games to crush the opponent would make one more aggressive.

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