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1 March 2010
Multitasking as cultural artifact

WARNING: This introduction was written while watching an Argentinean soccer game, with a French newscast running in another browser window, “The Only Living Boy in New York” playing on iTunes, and an IM conversation with a friend in Kansas re:lunch happening on the side.

Multitasking seems inexorably tied to modern technologies of communication, information, work and entertainment, but is really really that novel? If you define it as paying (and dividing) attention between multiple information sources, then it might be argued that multitasking has always been in us. A hunter in the forest, a woman running a household, a farmer in the field, all multitask—paying attention to a multitude of sounds, smells, tactile and visual cues, always ready to notice significant changes in any one of them. Priests and shamans and ascetics have always had to take extraordinary efforts to mediate and minimize certain streams of input for the sake of others.

But modern multitasking, centered around electronic devices, can make what came before seem subtle and focused in comparison. Is it because the information and interaction no longer seem connected to our present environment? (But that’s only half true; staring at our screens, tapping out our alphabets, we’re still responding and reacting in the real world of light and sound and touch.) Maybe it’s the rates of change in the available technology, and our human ways of responding, interacting, creating and destroying in relation to it, that robs us of the accumulated wisdom involved in the multitasking of old.

Critiques of present-day multitasking are that it is both unwise (driving while texting) and ineffective (never focusing on one thing long enough to come up with a coherent thought). What do you think? What do today’s (and tomorrow’s) multitasking make of the world?

—Nate Barksdale

1. What does multitasking assume about the way the world is?

Multitasking assumes there is insufficient time for each task performed in sequence or isolation.  Or stated differently, that there is a priority to efficiency.  It is odd, though, that we mention “tasks”, when much (not all) of our multi-“tasking” is actually more consumption of information, images, etc…  I think multitasking in the modern era assumes an inherent value in the information stream; that if we don’t monitor it, we’ll be left in the wake.

—Jason Robertson

It assumes I am quite important. So important that people & things simply cannot wait for my genius.

In reality it shows I believe most of the things I do are pretty boring and not worthwhile in and of themselves.

—Jared Olivetti

It assumes people are divisible and that there are few things that require ALL of us. I know, in my marriage, there are times I’m tempted to multi-task, for example, when my wife is sharing some detail of her day that doesn’t necessarily grab my attention. I have certainly learned the hard way that, while the task at hand might not strictly require my full attention, for it to have any real meaning or value beyond myself, it requires all of me.

—Alan W. John Fox

It assumes that efficiency is the highest virtue.

John Fox
2. What does multitasking assume about the way the world should be?

At its core, the term assumes that the world is a set of tasks to be completed.  It is a muscular idea; one that assumes a certain level of control over life.  That our role is to pick and choose the order, admixture, and prioritization of events and actions. 
  It assumes things should be done simultaneously in order to make time for…?  Doing more things?  The “why” is usually not clear.  Perhaps it simply assumes things should be done efficiently.

—Jason Robertson

It assumes that people should basically be biological computers, able to “slice” time like modern CPUs. It’s essentially reductionist.

—Alan W.
3. What does multitasking make possible?

The “multitasking of old” that Nate mentions above are all tasks subsumed within a unifying task.  This is no less true today.  The physician in the ICU who nimbly synthesizes 15 points of continuous data to formulate a care plan.  The counselor who reads body language, interprets vocal tonality, and reflects on the spoken word all in order to reflect helpful advice back to a patient in need.  The police officer who approaches a traffic stop with senses at high alert.  The teacher who juggles 25 students verbal and nonverbal responses in a 45 minute lesson.  In a sense, nearly any task is really a complicated interplay of multitasking.  So multitasking makes possible the well done performance of a single task.  And in a real sense, our entire life is multitasking - what’s more important is to know our Task.

—Jason Robertson
4. What does multitasking make impossible (or at least a lot more difficult)?

It does appear, from research, that our attention is not infinitely expandable. In fact there does seem to be some basis for that idea that there are only between 5 and 9 ‘chunks’ of attention available to us at any time. This being so, then multitasking seems to make giving sustained attention to something less likely and over time harder for us. Some research seems to support this. This may have implications for the kind of scholarship that is possible or likely and the way that employers have to construct tasks.


Multitasking makes reading (books, not websites) a lot harder. For me, at least.

It makes contentment in quietness and stillness pretty darned difficult, too.

—Jared Olivetti


John Fox

Being in one place at a time.

5. What new culture is created in response?

One in which having several simultaneous options is seen to be desirable and attractive: multisensoriness rules!

One where the definition of politeness is redefined around a (new?) consensus about how much attention is properly affirming of a conversation partner.

One where both/either texting or web browsing on portable devices are accepted (tolerated?) alternatives to doodling and note passing in meetings and/OR high status /importance meetings are held in Faraday-cage rooms!


A frenetic one. Also, one hostile to long-form concentration.

John Fox