The Autumn of the Multitaskers

Neuroscience is confirming what we all suspect: Multitasking is dumbing us down and driving us crazy. One man’s odyssey through the nightmare of infinite connectivity

Illustrations by Istvan Banyai

I think your suggestion is, Can we do two things at once? Well, we’re of the view that we can walk and chew gum at the same time.
—Richard Armitage, deputy secretary of state, on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, June 2, 2004 (Armitage announced his resignation on November 16, 2004.)

To do two things at once is to do neither.
—Publilius Syrus, Roman slave, first century B.C.

In the midwestern town where I grew up (a town so small that the phone line on our block was a “party line” well into the 1960s, meaning that we shared it with our neighbors and couldn’t use it while one of them was using it, unless we wanted to quietly listen in—with their permission, naturally, and only if we were feeling awfully lonesome—while they chatted with someone else), there were two skinny brothers in their 30s who built a car that could drive into the river and become a fishing boat.

My pals and I thought the car-boat was a wonder. A thing that did one thing but also did another thing— especially the opposite thing, but at least an unrelated thing—was our idea of a great invention and a bold stride toward the future. Where we got this idea, I’ll never know, but it caused us to envision a world to come teeming with crossbred, hyphenated machines. Refrigerator-TV sets. Dishwasher-air conditioners. Table saw-popcorn poppers. Camera-radios.

With that last dumb idea, we were getting close to something, as I’ve noted every time I’ve dropped or fumbled my cell phone and snapped a picture of a wall or the middle button of my shirt. Impressive. Ingenious. Yet juvenile. Arbitrary. And why a substandard camera, anyway? Why not an excellent electric razor?

Because (I told myself at the cell-phone store in the winter of 2003, as I handled a feature-laden upgrade that my new contract entitled me to purchase at a deep discount that also included a rebate) there may come a moment on a plane or in a subway station or at a mall when I and the other able-bodied males will be forced to subdue a terrorist, and my color snapshot of his trussed-up body will make the front page of USA Today and appear at the left shoulder of all the superstars of cable news.

While I waited for my date with citizen-journalist destiny, I took a lot of self-portraits in my Toyota and forwarded them to a girlfriend in Colorado, who reciprocated from her Jeep. Neither one of us almost died. For months. But then, one night on a snowy two-lane highway, while I was crossing Wyoming to see my girl’s real face, my phone made its chirpy you-have-a-picture noise, and I glanced down in its direction while also, apparently, swerving off the pavement and sailing over a steep embankment toward a barbed-wire fence.

It was interesting to me—in retrospect, after having done some reading about the frenzied activity of the multitasking brain—how late in the process my prefrontal cortex, where our cognitive switchboards hide, changed its focus from the silly phone (Where did it go? Did it slip between the seats? I wonder if this new photo is a nude shot or if it’s another one from the topless series that seemed like such a breakthrough a month ago but now I’m getting sick of) to the important matter of a steel fence post sliding spear-like across my hood …

(But her arms are too short to shoot a nude self-portrait with a camera phone. She’d have to do it in a mirror …)

The laminated windshield glass must have been high quality; the point of the post bounced off it, leaving only a star-shaped surface crack. But I was still barreling toward sagebrush, and who knew what rocks and boulders lay in wait …

Then the phone trilled out its normal ringtone.

Five minutes later, I’d driven out of the field and gunned it back up the embankment onto the highway and was proceeding south, heart slowing some, satellite radio tuned to a soft-rock channel called the Heart, which was playing lots of soothing Céline Dion.

“I just had an accident trying to see your picture.”

“Will you get here in time to take me out to dinner?”

“I almost died.”

“Well, you sound fine.”

“Fine’s not a sound.”

I never forgave her for that detachment. I never forgave myself for buying a camera phone.

The abiding, distinctive feature of all crashes, whether in stock prices, housing values, or hit-TV-show ratings, is that they startle but don’t surprise. When the euphoria subsides, when the volatile graph lines of excitability flatten and then curve down, people realize, collectively and instantly (and not infrequently with some relief), that they’ve been expecting this correction. The signs were everywhere, the warnings clear, the researchers in rough agreement, and the stories down at the bar and in the office (our own stories included) revealed the same anxieties.

Which explains why the busts and reversals we deem inevitable are also the least preventable, and why they startle us, if briefly, when they come—because they were inevitable for so long that they should have come already. That they haven’t, we reason, can mean only one of two things. Thanks to technology or some other magic, we’ve entered a new age when the laws of cause and effect (as propounded by Isaac Newton and Adam Smith) have yielded to the principle of dream-and-make-it-happen (as manifested by Steve Jobs and Oprah). Either that, or the thing that went up and up and up and hasn’t come down, though it should have long ago, is being held aloft by our decision to forget it’s up there and to carry on as though it weren’t.

But on to the next inevitable contraction that everybody knows is coming, believes should have come a couple of years ago, and suspects can be postponed only if we pay no attention to the matter and stay very, very busy. I mean the end of the decade we may call the Roaring Zeros—these years of overleveraged, overextended, technology-driven, and finally unsustainable investment of our limited human energies in the dream of infinite connectivity. The overdoses, freak-outs, and collapses that converged in the late ’60s to wipe out the gains of the wide-eyed optimists who set out to “Be Here Now” but ended up making posters that read “Speed Kills” are finally coming for the wired utopians who strove to “Be Everywhere at Once” but lost a measure of innocence, or should have, when their manic credo convinced us we could fight two wars at the same time.

The Multitasking Crash.

The Attention-Deficit Recession.

We all remember the promises. The slogans. They were all about freedom, liberation. Supposedly we were in handcuffs and wanted out of them. The key that dangled in front of us was a microchip.

“Where do you want to go today?” asked Microsoft in a mid-1990s ad campaign. The suggestion was that there were endless destinations—some geographic, some social, some intellectual—that you could reach in milliseconds by loading the right devices with the right software. It was further insinuated that where you went was purely up to you, not your spouse, your boss, your kids, or your government. Autonomy through automation.

This was the embryonic fallacy that grew up into the monster of multitasking.

Human freedom, as classically defined (to think and act and choose with minimal interference by outside powers), was not a product that firms like Microsoft could offer, but they recast it as something they could provide. A product for which they could raise the demand by refining its features, upping its speed, restyling its appearance, and linking it up with all the other products that promised freedom, too, but had replaced it with three inferior substitutes that they could market in its name:

Efficiency, convenience, and mobility.

For proof that these bundled minor virtues don’t amount to freedom but are, instead, a formula for a period of mounting frenzy climaxing with a lapse into fatigue, consider that “Where do you want to go today?” was really manipulative advice, not an open question. “Go somewhere now,” it strongly recommended, then go somewhere else tomorrow, but always go, go, go—and with our help. But did any rebel reply, “Nowhere. I like it fine right here”? Did anyone boldly ask, “What business is it of yours?” Was anyone brave enough to say, “Frankly, I want to go back to bed”?

Maybe a few of us. Not enough of us. Everyone else was going places, it seemed, and either we started going places, too—especially to those places that weren’t places (another word they’d redefined) but were just pictures or documents or videos or boxes on screens where strangers conversed by typing—or else we’d be nowhere (a location once known as “here”) doing nothing (an activity formerly labeled “living”). What a waste this would be. What a waste of our new freedom.

Our freedom to stay busy at all hours, at the task—and then the many tasks, and ultimately the multitask—of trying to be free.

Presented by

Walter Kirn is a novelist and critic who lives in Montana. His latest novel is The Unbinding (2006).

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