Monday, October 15, 2007

"To do two things at once is to do neither" - Publilius Syrus

Most people with an Apple computer are familiar with the option to make the corners of your screen hot spots. When I was working on the many essays I have had to write recently, I realized how often I used the hot spot function to bring up all my open windows into view at once. I used to be fascinated by this part of the OSX interface, but now it seems very transparent--almost to the point where I could make a metaphor between it and how my brain flicks between different thoughts. These realizations were inspired by Luke's lecture on interfaces, but I actually have another route in mind.

While my "hot-spotting" shows an almost checkerboard like pattern of all my open windows, I couldn't help thinking of how much multitasking is being built into new interface features. Luke mentioned multitasking in the lecture on audiences, commenting on how the new generation of avid tech users may not be as good at multitasking as they think. I don't know whether it can be said that new interfaces encourage multitasking or cater to an increased demand by users for the ability to multitask, but either way multitasking is a under-realized part of how we use technology. It seems natural that a cell phone or a computer can do more than one thing at once. However, that is a part of their technology and their "brains" aren't like our brains. I wonder about the effect the ability to multitask on computers has on the human brain, since the constant use of interface technology is transforming the way we think about, and deal with, everyday tasks (for example, Microsoft word, or any word processor, has become the way many think about writing--automatically knowing that a 1000 word assignment will be about 4 pages double-spaced).

I did some research on multitasking and found some interesting information. I discovered a case study on laptop usage during classroom lectures--something we are all familiar with. The study noted a serious decrement in memory for lecture content for a group with their laptops open (with no boundaries on how they could be used, and with WiFi available) compared to a group with their laptops closed. Interestingly, those who spent more time browsing class-related material (PowerPoint, websites, notes, etc.) scored lower on recall/recognition of the lecture than those who spent more time browsing completely unrelated sites (Facebook, AIM, etc.). And when compared, those who did un-related browsing didn't show much difference in their scores from those who didn't have their laptops open at all. What they found overall is that new information, such as that presented at lectures, is more likely to cause students to need or want to discover more and more information quickly through the use of their computers, and it is the unfamiliarity of the material and speed at which the browsing happens that makes it less likely that the information will stick. Those students who did the stuff we are all used to--emailing, IMing, etc.--seemed to have a balancing act in place and could multitask better, thus retaining more of the lecture.

Another study also suggests the same--that switching to unfamiliar tasks, such as a new YouTube clip or an exciting web page, takes more time and effort. This is because our brains have to switch over in a more disruptive way, as they were still thinking about the last task and have no predefined plan for the next one.

After further research, I learned that computers don't actually do more than one thing at a time. All their operations are serially done, it's just that they have become incredibly fast so we do not realize that uploading pictures and checking email are being constantly traded on and off by the computer as we use them. Even so, multitasking has allowed us to mix business with pleasure, writing assignments on laptops while watching video clips or flipping through photos. And although some research suggests we do neither thing well while multitasking, the activity of doing two things at once is not new at all. Mothers, in particular, are known for this skill, as well as any successful professional who works in a high-powered job, such as in finance or business.

The conclusion may be that the multitasking that goes on on our computers is a simpler version of what we can already do, we just have to keep our eye on it (and something else) while it continues to improve. After all, computers haven't been around for all that long. But another issue arises in that we are so attached to new technology and new interfaces, and tend to accept them without thinking, causing us to be duped into acting as though multitasking gets more done. Although multitasking is sometimes a necessity in the outside world, it almost never is in the computer world. That point can be debated, but I believe that we should all slow down and start devoting ourselves to one thing (and/or one person) at time. In the end, I think we'll all get more done.


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