Some short fragments on the idea of multitasking. In the frame of the task, the thing to be done owns the attention of the doer. The doer’s attention is released when the task is done. The idea of multitasking is to engage with a portfolio of tasks, rapidly switching attention among tasks, or initiating actions that affect more than one task. The critique of multitasking states that the energy expended on switching and re-engaging among tasks lowers overall productivity. The comparative case is a set of tasks done sequentially with a singular focus. The design of the comparison begs the question about the value of what is learned in process. If the strategy, goal and tasks are static and nothing learned in process will change them, then there may be an optimal sequence to complete tasks. On the other hand, if the information released through engagement with the portfolio of tasks dynamically affects strategy and goals, then the early uncovering of both known and unknown unknowns provides better overall visibility. However, generally, in a corporate setting, strategy and goals are not responsive to the task. The pecking order doesn’t allow information transfer in that direction, especially with top down management styles that neutralize the bottom-up approach by championing it.
The other frame in which multitasking finds itself is in the behavior of rapid switching among electronic media inputs. The critique here is that our attention spans have been shortened and by virtue of the new media environment. Reading a long novel, or some other activity, that requires sustained attention over a long period is thought to be on the way out. We’re only interested in the highlights.
The operational assumption is that consumption of narratives is a process in which an individual starts at the beginning, goes to the end and then stops. Deviation from that model provides evidence of dysfunction, an inability to concentrate attention. Empirical observations show individuals engaging for short bursts and then moving on to the next thing. The short engagement is thought to be a response to the flood of information. Nothing can be fully engaged, so everything is engaged at its most shallow, in a summary form. The depth of the narrative product is untouched. Imagine a person ordering 12 completely different dinners and only having a taste of each course. The equivalent of 1 dinner is consumed, and 11 dinners wasted.
It was in listening to a recording of Tyler Cowen in conversation with Russ Roberts that the bit was flipped for me. By simply looking from the reverse angle, the pieces fall into place. The narrative is also on the side of the individual. Cowen posits that individuals have long running narratives for which they collect fragments of information. Perhaps you’re a fan of a baseball team, a particular musician or a kind of dog. The ocean of information and the multiplication of sources is a welcome addition to the environment. Tracking a favorite musician through the ocean of information on the Network creates an efficient filter. Tracking other people who track this musician creates a micro-community of interest and extends the reach and focus of an individual.
What looks like multitasking turns out to be a single task executed across multiple media sources. What might look like a lack of focus and a short attention span is simply a relentless filter throwing out fragments that don’t enhance the internal narrative. The new media environment affords the possibility, and significantly reduces the cost of, productive research. The connections formed among these diverse sources loop back into the Network as a new node in a virtuous circle.
In an environment of scarcity, narratives might be savored— the story eagerly consumed from the ‘once upon a time’ to the ‘they lived happily every after.’ In an environment of abundance, the rare narrative is the one you’re building for yourself. The one built from the abundance of material uncovered through the Network.