14 January 2011

The Sad Story of the Anti-Multitaskers

I am constantly entertained by the number of seemingly "very smart people" who are incredibly anxious to tell the world that they cannot walk and chew gum at the same time.

OK, I am being cruel, but please - We really need our "scientists" to comprehend the limitations their own questions put on their research.

Today, @derekbruff sent me to a great blog post which referenced a PBS story on multitasking. This is part of the "focus" lobby - PBS, NPR, and The New York Times are devoted to the theory that humans can do only one thing at a time. In fact, I think its at least once a week that NPR tells me that I can't possibly be driving my car because I am listening to Science Friday.

Part of what I said in a comment at that blog:
"The sad attempts to measure human multitasking via Gutenberg-era preferences continue. Here’s what these “scientists” don’t know: How human brains “looked” before Gutenberg and Calvin applied straight-line information flow and “single-tasking” to our species.

"So, 10,000 years ago developing brains were wildly multitasking. Looking for food, looking for predators, watching the weather, all while, I’m quite sure, checking out and chatting up potential mates or talking about doing so.

"We have, finally, begun to pull ourselves out of the straightjacket of 500 years of the Protestant Reformation’s belief in “focus” and linearity. Me on Human Communication

"I could indicate the level of ridiculous comments made by researchers in this video (”you cannot drive and talk or listen” – wow, there go passengers and radio) ..."
And I want to continue "that" ("indicate the level of ridiculous comments") here.  The scientists in this video imagine a static world has existed that is suddenly changing. They do this because they are not postmodernists and have not been trained in critical theories so that - I'm not just being insulting here, I really mean this - they do not know how to ask questions about the questions they are asking. And when you fail to do that, your "scientific" observations cannot be any better than the unexamined assumptions which lie behind your unchallenged questions.

So, fatal research mistake number one: "Humans have not been multitaskers before - this is new." And here I want to introduce another problem with the system - yes, even our "best" system which produces Ivy League faculty members - the division of content into separate silos. Because, in preparing their research into multitasking these scholars feel no requirement to walk through Notre Dame de Paris or Christchurch in Dublin to help conceive of the learning environments just a thousand years ago. They do not feel called to spend a week considering the work environment of the iron age. They do go to a place where they might pick berries while worrying about lions.

Instead they sat in libraries designed on 19th Century Calvinist theories, or sat at 18th Century ideas of what a "desk" is, and read research from the past half-century of their tiny slice of human knowledge via Gutenberg technology, or more contemporary technology mimicking Gutenberg technology. And when they did that the determined their conclusions before they made a single observation.

To build on an old metaphor, "the prepped their research in an entirely green environment, and were shocked to discover red when they opened the door." After all, if Dorothy had opened the door to Oz from the middle of Times Square, would the color have surprised her?

Fatal research mistake two is, "Our measuring systems are valid." Let us begin here with the understanding that ALL knowledge and all measurement is socially constructed. "If the aborigine drafted an IQ test, all of Western civilization would presumably flunk it." - Stanley Garn. Just to trouble you, is - in human experience of temperature, there as big a difference between 65 and 75F (17-23 C) as between 35 and 25F (+2 and -4 C)? In other words, as humans describing the weather, should we really be dependent on a scale based in the response of water to heat? But of course we are, and we are so acclimated to this that just hearing a number associated with weather - say "thirty" - immediately evokes radically different thoughts based solely on which side of the Detroit or Niagara rivers you live.

Here's an "IQ" question for you - "The assignment test: The subject is given a map and receives instructions to buy the following objects: half a hundredweight of potatoes, one-half pound of coffee, one-half pound of sausage, fifty pfennigs worth of fresh biscuits, and a pound of butter. He is further required to bring a pair of trousers to the tailor and a pair of shoes to the cobbler, as well as a ten-pound package to the post office. He is also required to pay a certain amount of tax at City Hall and to pick up a friend at the train station. The following rules are to be observed: The person leaves the house at 10:30. At 1:00 he should be back for lunch and accomplished all his tasks. Now the tax office is open only from 8 to 10 a.m., fresh bread is available only after 11 a.m., and the friend arrives at the station at 12:30. The post office and all stores are open between 12 and 2. Between the apartment and the train station runs a streetcar-which takes one-quarter of an hour and may be used at will." It was on this basis that the German government of 1934-1938 - using theories from the US State of Virginia, would decide whether to murder or at least castrate a person.

So, how we measure matters. This is how scientists "measure" attention and multitasking: They use flashing lines and symbols and other nonsense tasks in most cases. They ask odd questions, and yes, sometimes they even observe, but in every case they begin with a "grounding point" roughly equivalent to my sister Nancy (who I love dearly) sitting in a corner of the University of Edinburgh Library reading an 18th Century novel. Total, 100% involvement in a single task. For all of these research projects, that is "best" - 100 on their scales. It does not matter if, as I think often happened, Nancy would stumble out of the building hours later not knowing where she was or what the weather might be or if she had eaten today. In the measurement systems all of these studies are based on, Nancy is "100" and I am close to "Zero."

Essentially this is like saying that "72 F degrees" is the ideal temperature. That's lovely unless you are a polar bear or a tropical bird or...

But, and we must know this as we think about the education we offer our students, these researchers never question these measures. They are "mathematical scales" and they believe that a mathematical scale represents a "truth."

Fatal research mistake three is, "We know what multitasking is." Just as, say, we know what "North America" is (is it Canada, the US, Mexico? Include all of Central America? Include the whole Caribbean?), or we know what a "nation" is (The UN and FIFA have very different counts), or we know where Europe stops and Asia begins.

I might argue that all "driving" (operating a motor vehicle) is multitasking. I might argue this because the driver combing his or her hair while reading the newspaper is only a bit less scary than the person with the locked stare straight ahead. I sort of expect that drivers will be alert to many things around them at the same time, and would, perhaps, even notice if the child in the car seat in the back began choking. There's even a huge industry devoted to giving you things to read while driving, one major participant in that industry is the government.

I also might argue, as one website notes, that some of our most complex, attention demanding work environments are multitasking environments. "Emergency physicians epitomize what it's like to work in a time-pressured, interruption-based environment. Multitasking is necessary to survive in this environment where you are constantly shifting focus and addressing new tasks or problems as they arise." Would we really want airline pilots who could only pay attention to one thing at a time?

So, if medicine and operating a car are multitasking, as I might add, is walking down the street, what are these researchers measuring?

They have not asked. Largely because "we," education-as-we-know-it, have not taught them to ask.

Understanding the unexamined assumptions which lie beneath our "knowledge" is a vital issue that we rarely engage in our schools. And assuming that the "best" path to knowledge transfer or work is my sister Nancy's path - lovely as that may be - is offensive.

Or so I say while writing two documents plus this, answering email, tweeting, and watching Two Knights from Brooklyn.

- Ira Socol


Anonymous said...

I have a theory that people who are involved in research science of any kind tend toward the Asperger's Syndrome end of the spectrum. To me, focus on one thing can be total, as in almost catatonic. Being presented with many inputs, as an expected normal state, can be overwhelming.

I think that people get into science because they want to spend their whole day thinking about one thing. They can live and breathe whatever specialized body of knowledge is their thing. Not only can they avoid distracting themselves with all the other stuff, it is their job description to avoid it.

Given this (and that's a big given), it stands to reason that the ideal would be a monastic lifestyle.

More seriously: Everyone has an opinion. I want focus, you crave input, and everyone else wants to chime in on which of these is more appropriate or normal. I think there's room for everyone, as long as we all understand that we can't make expectations that exceed the other's capabilities.

The real problem I see is that people feel they can just do shoddy work and say, "I multitask, so you have to cut me some slack," or maybe take too long with something and say, "I'm not a multitasker, and I had to take care of a few things before I got to your spot in the queue."

Important to be realistic about expectations, and not make any point on the spectrum the 'norm.'

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Miss Shuganah said...

I am not anti multi-tasking. I don't think I multitask very well.

When I am focused on something, deeply concentrating, I startle really easily. People will come up from behind me and I will leap up.

My husband can work on coding, listen to his rock n roll station and sometimes even watch a video from Democracy Now all at the same time.

Right now I am listening to and watching PBS Kids (it's Spring Break) while attempting to read and reread this post and express myself. I can do this, but it is not my ideal situation, especially with Kid O likely to destroy my concentration in an instant.

I suppose if I were gathering berries I may be eaten by a lion. But perhaps not. If one is gathering berries there are many details to pay attention to, lions aside and it doesn't require the same deep concentration that other things require.

So perhaps the questions are when can we all multitask versus when do we need peace and quiet for deeper concentration?

I can also write blog posts with the kids around, although it's been a while. That is not my preferred way.

I suppose in that regard I can multitask with all kinds of things grabbing my attention (right now it's Dinosaur Train) and anticipating Kid O's next whine for attention.

I tend to turn to the radio off when I am driving, for instance, because I am uncertain if I will hear sirens until they are literally right on top of me. When the kids were little, I would tilt the rearview mirror to make sure that Kid Q hadn't unbuckled herself or otherwise escaped from her carseat.

I can do all these things. The question is one of preference. I prefer peace and quiet. I prefer it when I can write, think, read while in the zone. As opposed to zoned out. When I meditate or work in the garden, that is just me and the nothingness. Or the honeybees examining the crocuses. Or standing in the middle of a silent snow fall.

I do not like watching my husband at work. Makes me jittery. Same thing with Kid Q. But again its their preference.

I think that school only allows one kind of way of working. We are silent or we are noisy, but we are not some of each at the same time.

Sorry if this is inarticulate. The conditions are not optimal. Someone wants Pop Tarts. And another kid wants not really quite sure what.

Dirk said...

It's not that we cannot multitask, it's that our resources are limited. In some instances this is obvious: you cannot drive a car and play the piano at the same time, because you only have two hands. In other cases it is less obvious: you cannot listen and read at "full speed" at the same time, because you have only one "language processing facility", although it would seem that something done with the eyes and something done with the ears should not interfere. An extra complication is that during very many activities, not just reading or listening or speaking, we "think in words", which makes them hard to combine. Talking and driving should combine well, because it's combining spacial thinking and using your hands and feet with thinking in words and using your mouth and ears. In fact, a talking passenger who sits perfectly still should distract you much less than a silent passenger who is moving about all the time, because the latter involves changes in the spatial arrangement around you.

JMitchinson said...

Unfortunately, multi-tasking has been oversimplified. There are many different states of attention that need to be managed throughout given tasks. Some of these require very simple and "automatic" types of processing. When we multi-task for these kinds of tasks it is very easy to complete multiple tasks with very little margin of error. What seems to be missing in this debate is what happens when people try to combine tasks that require complex processing. Monitoring and skimming/scanning to determine what kind of attention tasks require as they pop up is still another part of multi-tasking. I would suggest reading the work of Dr. David Myers from Michigan State University, Linda Stone, former exec from Apple and Microsoft, and Dr. Tracey Alloway.