21 June 2010

The Question of Attention

"He came the following Sunday afternoon. I had a television set. We played one ballgame on the TV, another on the radio, and kept switching to a third and kept track of all that was happening every moment. "Remember, Sal, Hodges is on second in Brooklyn so while the relief pitcher is coming in for the Phillies we'll switch to Giants-Boston and at the same time notice there DiMaggio has three balls count and the pitcher is fiddling with the resin bag, so we quickly find out what happened to Bobby Thomson when we left him thirty seconds ago with a man on third. Yes!"' - Jack Kerouac, On The Road

It is 1949 and Kerouac and Neal Cassady are experiencing new media multitasking. Who knew that 60 years on that idea would be more controversial than anything else in that breakthrough novel?

"Thus far, the neuroscience of multitasking has tended to follow a predictable pattern. Scientists take a handful of test subjects out of their offices and make them watch colored squares dance on a screen in a lab somewhere. Then they determine that multitasking makes you slightly less able to focus. A study reported on early this month found that heavy multitaskers performed about 10 to 20 percent worse on most tests than light multitaskers." - Steven Johnson in The New York Times

The kind of research "proving" multitasking is "impossible" [NPR] is available in this New York Times test.
Is your ability to attend to random flashing red rectangles a fair measuring system? Well, that's what always makes research funny. In order to quantify the human experience in a "valid" way you have to strip it down to a point where the experience itself is completely out of context and thus meaningless.

This "out of context research" is why, for example, I see so many high school graduates these days who can read perfectly fluently (which "research" says is important) while not comprehending one word. And, in the case of "attention," it is why we have so many smart people suddenly declaring that they are unable to "walk and chew gum at the same time."

And this matters because, at least since the end of the World War we have been fighting a bizarre battle against our children. "You can't listen to the radio and do your homework." "You can't watch television and do your homework." "You can't look out the window and hear the teacher."

This notion of "attention" is, of course, religious, not scientific. Early Calvinist churches stripped everything but the book and the minister from the worship space because your mind was supposed to be single-focused, not wandering as in a Catholic Mass in a Cathedral. On the other hand humans would never have made it out of the trees if they hadn't been able to gather berries while watching out for large cats. Yet, because brain science remains cultural, our scientists still pursue that Protestant notion of "attention" as if it is a scientific ideal. And this crushes children's learning - and comfort - in school.

What's funny is that NPR will broadcast this story to an audience that is 70 percent driving. Yes, all those NPR listeners are dealing with the complex issues of Science Friday while navigating a two ton vehicle moving at over a kilometer and a half every 60 seconds. The rest of the audience is at work, or cooking dinner, or whatever, but damn few are single-tasking.

The New York Times is writing that story for an audience that is eating breakfast, riding the subway, opening mail at their desk, listening to a meeting in their conference room. Probably more are multi-tasking than not.

Yet, the stories are put out there, despite the overwhelming evidence that they really cannot possibly be true.

See, scientists can debate whether we are multi-tasking or "rapid shifting," but that's theoretical entertainment only. It does not matter. While you are driving, listening to NPR, you don't drive off the road because you "rapidly shift" to looking in your rear-view mirrors. You don't stop the car to change the air conditioning setting. The previous task continues, in actuality and in your brain, until you fully return to it.

So, this is one fight we should stop having. We are human. We multitask. We can understand it and get better at it, or we can stop functioning in the world and hide in a corner with our linear print books.

Let's go back to Steven Johnson:
"It’s no accident that most of the great scientific and technological innovation over the last millennium has taken place in crowded, distracting urban centers. The printed page itself encouraged those manifold connections, by allowing ideas to be stored and shared and circulated more efficiently. One can make the case that the Enlightenment depended more on the exchange of ideas than it did on solitary, deep-focus reading.

"Quiet contemplation has led to its fair share of important thoughts. But it cannot be denied that good ideas also emerge in networks.

"Yes, we are a little less focused, thanks to the electric stimulus of the screen. Yes, we are reading slightly fewer long-form narratives and arguments than we did 50 years ago, though the Kindle and the iPad may well change that. Those are costs, to be sure. But what of the other side of the ledger? We are reading more text, writing far more often, than we were in the heyday of television.

"And the speed with which we can follow the trail of an idea, or discover new perspectives on a problem, has increased by several orders of magnitude. We are marginally less focused, and exponentially more connected. That’s a bargain all of us should be happy to make."
- Ira Socol


Steve Ransom said...

Ira, nice distinction you make here regarding decontextualized research. There is no doubt that we humans can multitask. We do it all of the time. I think the issue of more importance is when tasks do require a single focus... tasks that require of us to think deeply and attend for sustained periods of time (with our without a networked or collaborative space) without constantly switching to and from a myriad of other signals irrelevant to the task at hand. Certainly, not all tasks require this sort of focused immersion in a solitary purpose. But, I think some do and we all need to recognize when that is and have the discipline to slow down or cease the multitasking for "the moment".

Jerrid Kruse said...

Just food for thought, but I wonder if your mention of "theoretical entertainment" gets to the heart of the issue that Carr & others are trying to raise - that our quick switching & ability to follow trails quickly means we are not going deeper (to the point we make light of theoretical investigation). Theoretical entertainment ought be a goal, not something to be mocked. Out of deep consideration of theory, we might gain new insight. Of course more bridging,contextual thought is necessary as well, but in an attempt to gain the whole picture, we likely sacrifice depth of view. Like the electron, we can know position or velocity, but not both.

I know you are a fan of Postman, I see Carr as continuing that important tradition of media critique.

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