Productive? Efficient? More like running up and down a beach repairing a row of sand castles as the tide comes rolling in and the rain comes pouring down. Multitasking, a definition: “The attempt by human beings to operate like computers, often done with the assistance of computers.” It begins by giving us more tasks to do, making each task harder to do, and dimming the mental powers required to do them.
Kirn's essay contains so many asides and parentheticals but builds in such a crescendo that I think he must have intentionally crafted the form of the essay to itself be a sort of meditation on focus. He directs his ire not so much at the technologies of multitasking as at the ways they are used, and at the unquestioned premises behind the tools' design and promotion — premises that can produce effects quite the opposite of what is promised and intended.
Take e-readers, for example. Let's put aside the claims that reading is coming to an end and the counter-claims that reading is undergoing a renaissance; instead, let's focus on the e-reader technology itself. The difference between, say, the Kindle and printed books (playfully explored here by Alan Jacobs on one of our sister blogs) is of course partly a matter of comfort for the eye and the hand. But more importantly, screens are generally part of a series of technologies that immerse us in a vast web of constant connection to other things, people, and ideas — rather than just the things, people, and ideas right in front of us. In another New Atlantis article last year, Christine Rosen described her experience attempting to read Dickens's Nicholas Nickleby on a Kindle:
... I quickly adjusted to the Kindle’s screen and mastered the scroll and page-turn buttons. Nevertheless, my eyes were restless and jumped around as they do when I try to read for a sustained time on the computer. Distractions abounded. I looked up Dickens on Wikipedia, then jumped straight down the Internet rabbit hole following a link about a Dickens short story, “Mugby Junction.” Twenty minutes later I still hadn’t returned to my reading of Nickleby on the Kindle.
Maryanne Wolf wonders about the implications of that kind of distraction for children on the New York Times website:
The child’s imagination and children’s nascent sense of probity and introspection are no match for a medium that creates a sense of urgency to get to the next piece of stimulating information. The attention span of children may be one of the main reasons why an immersion in on-screen reading is so engaging, and it may also be why digital reading may ultimately prove antithetical to the long-in-development, reflective nature of the expert reading brain as we know it....The habitual reader Aristotle worried about the three lives of the “good society”: the first life is the life of productivity and knowledge gathering; the second, the life of entertainment; and the third, the life of reflection and contemplation....I have no doubt that the digital immersion of our children will provide a rich life of entertainment and information and knowledge. My concern is that they will not learn, with their passive immersion, the joy and the effort of the third life, of thinking one’s own thoughts and going beyond what is given.
E-readers wouldn't be nearly as problematic if they didn't — both explicitly by being Internet-enabled and implicitly through their digital and screeny natures — draw us into the mode of interaction that is characteristic of the digital world. Reading itself may not be going anywhere, but sustained and focused reading might become increasingly difficult.
And of course these concerns about screens and reading apply more broadly to our interactions with people, places, and the world around us in general. Just take a look at the pilots who recently not only overflew their airport by 150 miles but didn't even respond to frantic hails from airports and other nearby pilots, all because they were distracted by their laptops. Maybe the pilots are lying — maybe they were really asleep — but even then, the fact that they would use laptops as an excuse and that so many of us would find that excuse plausible suggests that we understand the great power that the screen can have over us. One shudders to imagine how our interaction with the world will shift if the medium of information immersion is slapped right onto our eyeballs.
(Hat tip: Justin Henderson)