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David Arthur Walters

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Multitasking Stupidity

3/9/2005 10:22:00 AM

by David Arthur Walters


Mounting evidence indicates that multitasking is making people dumber and dumber


Multitasking or doing several things at once is the craze in our fast-paced age of gadgetry and gimmickry. Alas, when are people going to wake up to the obvious fact that multitasking is making them stupid? Of course that is a stupid question. “Not any time soon,” is the obvious answer.




After thousands of multitaskers scanned the dire warnings in the Wall Street Journal (1), they went right back to multitasking! And newspaper columnists for Career Builder kept right on talking up multitasking. Multitasking continues to be part of the standard job description.



"Must be able to handle multiple tasks concurrently," read Bank Midwest's Help Wanted advertisement for an accountant-analyst. (2)



Since fast-paced multitasking leaves one short of breath if not short of money, complete sentences are not employed in want ads and résumés - complete sentences are much too personal for résumés. We note that the multitasking receptionist should be breathless as well, speaking so rapidly and indistinctly that a first-time caller cannot divine from the fast-paced greeting on the other end of the line whether or not he has reached the right company. He can wonder about that after he is put on hold for asking, and he can continue to wonder when he hears a fast-paced voicemail recording of a name he cannot quite make out.

The truth is out there. Believe it or not, some of it has been reported in mainstream periodicals. Evidence is mounting against multitasking as a way of getting things done efficiently and effectively. According to the Wall Street Journal, "A growing body of scientific research shows that trying to save time by doing two or three things at once actually can make you less efficient and, well, stupider. Multitasking can take longer overall and may leave you with reduced brain power to perform each task."




David Meyer, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, said chronic high-stress multitasking is linked to short-term memory loss. If that seems incredible, then read the study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. If more detailed evidence is wanted, the WSJ refers us to the study presented by Marcel Just of Carnegie Mellon University, published in Neuroimage.



But we do not have to rely on indirect evidence if we can drop our own multitasking long enough to observe the stupidity in the office boxes around us. The stupidity of box people is of course obvious to anyone who has actually been thinking outside of the box for some time, perhaps because she is chronically unemployed.

Yes, indeed, the dumbing-down that results from multitasking and its incessant button pushing is reversible if one withdraws from it for a while. Hence we hear the cliché coming from demented multitaskers who are inside the boxes but have gotten the outside word: "Think outside of the box." To think outside of the box, one has to crawl out of the box made by multitasking, throw away the gadgets and actually think for a change. Beware: you might have to quit your job to get well.



Many people in our fast-paced age are not content with their employers or their educational institutions, yet they prefer to stay inside the boxes to get their credentials and pay. For them, thinking outside of the box means doing personal multitasking instead of paying attention to business and educational courses.



Competing campuses encourage multitasking, installing wireless webs and even handing out Ipods to freshman students. The students, in turn, doodle instead of study the courses at hand: they have been observed conducting auctions on Ebay while in class, surfing the Net, watching movies, listening to music, playing video games, viewing pornography, and the like. The abuse is especially widespread in law schools. Many of them will graduate and go on to lord it over an increasingly dumbed-down democratic-consumer population. Too much has already been said about the moronic behavior of Ivy League University business grads, so we shall say nothing more on that here.



A December 20, 2004 Business Week report, 'Take a Vacation from Your Blackberry', presents further expert testimony that gadgets boost errors and stress. (Slang for Blackberry is now Crackberry) Of course those of us who are familiar with the old adage "Haste makes waste" have always known that "fast-paced" work produces mistakes and distress. We called it the Rat Race when there were fewer gadgets around. Dire forecasts were made, that we were turning into button-pushers who let machines do the thinking for us as we become dumber and dumber, so dumb that we cannot do our math without calculators. Well, now the want ads tell us that we "MUST" know this or that software program in order to get a job, which means that we must know what sequence of buttons to push, and not the reasoning and logic that led to that determination of work behavior.



According to Business Week, Hamilton College anthropologist Douglas Raybeck believes that our gadget-based flywheel, as it goes faster and faster, will become an "unsupportable loop." David Greenfield, director of the Center for Internet Studies, said the idea that gadgets are making us more efficient "is a scam, an illusion." Psychology professor David Meyer claims that multitasking engenders multislacking, "increases errors, short-circuits attention spans, induces air-traffic-controller-like stress, and elongates the time it takes to accomplish the most basic tasks by 50% or more." Dr. Edward M. Hallowell of Harvard said gadgets trigger "cognitive overload", and has dubbed the toggling epidemic "attention deficit trait", which makes managers irritable and produces disorganized underachievers. (3)

Egad! The world has gone completely mad! Where it will stop, nobody knows. But who wants it to end? That would be sad. It is time to slow down and wise up and strike a few blows for effectiveness and efficiency.






(1) 'Multitasking can make you stupid, study finds', Health Watch, Wall Street Journal, c. 2002
(2) Help Wanted, The Kansas City Star, March 14, 2004
(3) Business Week, December 20, 2004


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