Friday, July 15, 2005


the myth of multi-tasking

Evidence continues to show that people can not safely drive and chat on a mobile phone at the same time (I've seen two studies reported just this week). The reason is not dexterity -- the problem exists with hands-free sets as well. The reason is cognitive: we can't concentrate on two important unrelated activities at once.

The implications of these findings go beyond cell phones. What the cell phone studies show is that multitasking is a myth. The myth of multitasking, spun by techno journalists and trend gurus, asserts humans have rewired their brains as a consequence of increased exposure to technology. The "rewired brain" enthusiasts speak with gushing romantic faith that echoes Maoist ideas of the arrival of a "New Man" unshackled from his biological limitations. They claim people are different from how they were in the past: smarter, faster, and omnipresent, thanks to technology. Those hours whittled away in front of Playstation or Xbox have made you able to perform mental feats previously impossible. Well, not quite. Being quick with the game controller does not mean you can also carry on a meaningful conversation at the same time.

I would like to see talking on mobile phones in moving cars made illegal for the sake of public safety. But I also hope the growing research on cognitive overload will cause us to reassess the stress we create, and are subjected to, that results from technology disrupting our context. "Always on, always available" or "Anytime, anywhere" may sound like freedom, but it also entails a cost. I would like to see the concept of Intrusion addressed more systematically. We all know Intrusion is disruptive, it can break our concentration, but do we really know what it costs us in concrete terms? Is anyone doing real field studies of Intrusion, quantifying its prevalence and documenting its effects? If you know of such work, please let me know.

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