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
This is the perfect “one plus one equals three” opportunity.

— Robert Pittman, president and COO of America Online, on the merger between AOL and Time Warner, 2000

There may be a financial cost to multitasking as well. The sum is extremely large and hard to vouch for, the esoteric algorithm that yielded it a puzzle to all but its creator, possibly, but it’s one of those figures that’s fun to quote in bars.

Six hundred and fifty billion dollars. That’s what we might call our National Attention Deficit, according to Jonathan B. Spira, who’s the chief analyst at a business- research firm called Basex and has estimated the per annum cost to the economy of multitasking-induced disruptions. (He obtained the figure by surveying office workers across the country, who reported that some 28 percent of their time was wasted dealing with multitasking- related transitions and interruptions.)

That $650 billion reflects just one year’s loss. This means that the total debt is vastly higher, since personal digital assistants (the devices that, in my opinion, turned multitasking from a habit into a pathology, which the advent of Bluetooth then rendered fatal and the spread of wireless broadband made communicable) are several annums old. This puts our shortfall somewhere in the trillions— even before we add in the many billions that vanished when Time Warner and AOL joined their respective corporate missions—so ably accomplished when the firms were separate—into one colossal mission impossible.

And don’t forget to add Enron to the tab, a company that seemed to master so many enterprises, trading everything from energy to weather futures, that the Wall Street analysts’ brains froze up trying to “re­context” (another science term) what looked at first like a capitalist dynamo as the street-corner con that it turned out to be. Reports suggest that the illusion depended nearly as much on cunning set design as it did on phony accounting. The towering stack of Broadway stages that Enron called its headquarters—with its profusion of workstations, trading boards, copiers, speakerphones, fax machines, and shredders—made visiting banker-broker types go snow-blind. When the fraud was exposed, the press accused the moneymen of overestimating Enron. In truth, they’d underestimated Enron, whose hectic multi­tasking front concealed the managers’ Zenlike focus on one proficiency, and only one.

Hypnotism.

Which is easy to practice on an audience whose brains are already half dormant from the stress of scheduling flights on fractionally owned jets and changing the tilt and speed of treadmills according to the shifting readouts of miniature biofeedback monitors strapped around their upper arms.

What has the madness of multitasking cost us? The better question might be: What hasn’t it?

And the IOUs keep coming, signed at the bottom with millions of our names. We issued this currency. We’re the Federal Reserve of the attention economy, the central bank of overcommitment, keeping the system liquid with adrenaline. The problem is that we, the bankers, are also the borrowers. That’s multi­tasking for you. It moves in circles. Circles that we run around ourselves, as we try to pay off the debts we owe ourselves with funny money engraved with our own faces.

Here’s one item from my ledger:

Cost of pitying Kevin Federline while organizing business trip online and attaching computer peripheral: $279.

Federline—I know. A mayfly on the multimedia river who, now that he has mated, deserves to break back up into pixels. That he hasn’t means pixels are far too cheap and plentiful, particularly on the AOL welcome page, where for several months last year Federline’s image was regularly positioned beside the icon I click to get my e-mail. With practice, I learned to sweep past him the way the queen sweeps past her guards, but one afternoon his picture triggered a brainslide that buried half my day.

What the avalanche overwhelmed was a mental function that David E. Meyer, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, calls “adaptive executive control.” Thanks to Federline, I lost my ability, as Meyer would say, to “schedule task processes appropriately” and to “obey instructions about their relative priorities.”

Meyer, it’s worth noting, is a relative optimist among the researchers studying multitasking, since he’s convinced that some people can learn, with enough practice, to perform two tasks simultaneously as successfully as if they were doing them sequentially. But “enough practice” turns out to mean at least 2,000 tries, and I had just the one chance at the cheap fare to San Francisco that I’d turned on my laptop to reserve, only to be distracted by the picture of Federline winking at me from one browser window over.

The photo, a link explained, was taken while Federline was taping a TV show and happened to peer down at his phone, only to learn that what’s-her-hair, his wife, the psycho, bad-mother rehab-escapee (I had last caught up on her misadventures weeks or months before, while waiting out an eBay auction for an auxiliary hard drive “still in box”), had sent him a text message asking for a divorce. Federline’s face looked as raw as a freshly unbandaged plastic-surgery patient’s, but the aspect of the photo that grabbed me (as the promotional fare hovered in the ether, still unbooked and up for grabs) was the idea I suddenly entertained about its origins. The picture of Federline in cell-phone shock had been snapped on the sly by another phone, I sensed, and possibly by a hanger-on whom Federline regarded as a “bro.” It also seemed plausible that after the taping, Federline bought dinner for this Judas—who, in my reconstruction of events, had already beamed the spy shot to a tabloid and been wired big money in return. If so, he was probably richer than Federline, who depended for funds on the wife who’d just dumped him.

This thought sequence caused me to remember the hard drive—still sitting unopened in a closet—that I’d bought in that Internet auction way back when, while catching up on the Hollywood gossip news. Here’s the mental flowchart: Federline dumped > story about his prenuptial with Britney Spears > story was read during eBay auction > time to get some use out of my purchase.

Removing the hard drive from its shell of molded Styro­foam sloppily wrapped in masking tape stirred serious doubts about the seller’s claim that the gadget was unused. This put me in a quandary. Should I send the hard drive back? Blackball its seller on a message board? Best to test it first. I riffled through drawers to find the proper cable, plugged the device into a USB port, and only then became aware of the fluorescent Post-it note stuck in the corner of my laptop screen. “Grab discount SF fare,” the note read. Where had it gone? Where had I gone, rather? How could a piece of paper in a color specially formulated to signal the brain Important! Don’t Ignore! be upstaged by a picture of a sad minor celebrity? If the Post-it note had been a road sign warning of a hairpin mountain curve and Federline’s photo a radio interview, I and my car would be rolling down a cliff now.

Back to the San Francisco ticket, then. I brought up the main Expedia/Orbitz/Travelocity page and typed in the code for the San Francisco airport, which I couldn’t believe I got wrong. To fix it, I was forced to use one of those drop-down alphabetized lists that the highlight line always moves too fast through, meaning I click my mouse several entries too late. Seattle this time. I scrolled back up.

All tickets sold out.

The scientists call this ruinous mental lurching “dual task interference,” or just plain bottlenecking. I call it the reason Keven Federline cost me a cheap flight to San Francisco. (It also explains, perhaps, why sexual threesomes are often disappointing.)

I just wish the military understood the concept. They might understand then why “walking and chewing gum” in Afghanistan and Iraq is no way to catch bin Laden.

My hunch is that when we look back on it someday, at our juggling of electronic lives and the array of subtly different personas that each one encourages (we’re terse when texting, freewheeling on the phone, and in some middle state while e-mailing), the spectacle will appear as quaint and stylized as those scenes in old movies of stiff-backed lady operators, hair in bobby pins, rapidly swapping phone jacks from hole to hole as they connect Chicago to Miami, reporter to city desk, businessman to mistress. Such scenes were, for a time, cinematic shorthand for the frenzy of modern life, but then communications technology changed, and those operators lost their jobs.

To us.


We’ve got to be patient and committed [in Iraq], but we’ve got to multitask … We’ve got to talk about IranIran is more dangerous than Iraqand we have got to get the job done in Afghanistan and in Pakistan.

—Rudolph Giuliani, Republican presidential candidate, July 2007

The night the bubble finally popped for me began when I pushed a button on my hospital bed to summon the gray-haired night nurse. To convey my appreciation when she arrived and to help establish a relationship that I hoped would lead her to agree with me that my morphine drip was far too slow, I did as the gurus of management urge executives to do when they engage in important negotiations. I “reallocated” my “presence” and “enriched” my “medium.” I removed my headphones, closed my book, aimed the remote and clicked off the TV, and looked the old woman in the eye.

“What?” she said.

Her question came too quickly. Because of the way the human brain works—always lagging slightly, always falling a bit behind itself when it has to drop many things, one thing at a time, and refocus on a new thing—my attention had not yet caught up with my expression. Also, perhaps because of the way that morphine works, I was unnaturally aware of the mechanisms inside my mind. I could actually feel the neurological switching, the mental grinding of fine, tiny gears that makes multi­tasking such an inefficient, slow, error-prone, tiring way to get things done.

“Still hurts,” I finally said. “Wondering if you’d shorten up the intervals.” I left out the I’s, text message–style, because that’s how people in agony communicate. Teenagers, too, but aren’t they also in agony, with the shy self- consciousness of partials who don’t show all their cards, out of fear that they haven’t yet drawn many worth playing?

The nurse made a face that the gurus would call “equivocal”—meaning that it can support conflicting interpretations, even in a real-time, face-to-face, “presence- rich” exchange—and then glanced down at the iPod on my blanket.

“Music lover?”

“Book on tape,” I said.

“You can do those both at once?” She eyed the real book lying on my lap.

“Same one,” I said. “I like to double up.”

“Why?”

I had no answer. I had a comeback—Because I can, because it’s possible—but a comeback is just a way to keep things rolling when perhaps they ought to stop. When the nurse looked away and punched in new instructions on the keypad attached to my IV stand, I heard her thinking, No wonder this guy has kidney stones.No wonder he’s so hungry for narcotics. She turned around in time to see my hands moving from the book they’d just reopened to the tangled wires of the earphones.

“I’m grateful that you came so quickly and showed such understanding,” I said, not textishly, relaxing my syntax to suit the expectations of the elderly.

“Maybe more dope will be just the thing,” the nurse said, shedding equivocation with every word, as a dreamy warmth spread through my limbs and she soft-stepped out and shut the door. When I woke in the wee hours, my book, in both its forms, had slid off the bed onto the floor, the TV remote was lost among the blankets, and the blinking “sleep” indicator of the laptop computer I’ve failed to mention (delivered to my bedside by a friend who’d shared my delusion that even 25-bed Montana hospitals must offer wireless Internet these days) was exhaling onto the walls a lovely blue light that tempted me never to boot it up again.

That night, last May, as I drowsed and passed my stones, the mania left me, and it hasn’t returned.

What happened to the skinny brothers’ car-boat was that it sank the third time they took it fishing. It cracked down the length of its hull, took on water, then nose-dived into the sandy bottom, leaving its revved-up rear propeller sticking up two feet out of the river, furiously churning air until its creators returned in a canoe and whacked it silent with a crowbar.

The catastrophe, visible from half the town, was the talk of the party line that night, with most of the grown-ups joining in one pooled call that was still humming when I was sent to bed.

"Where do you want to go today?” Microsoft asked us.

Now that I no longer confuse freedom with speed, convenience, and mobility, my answer would be: “Away. Just away. Someplace where I can think.”

Presented by

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

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