Multitasking is a lie

Matt Yglesias has an interesting post on multitasking this morning in which the not-quite-30-year-old admits that “for me at least genuine multitasking is almost totally unworkable.”

My creaking brain is a decade and a half – give or take a year or two – older and more worn out than Yglesias’, so I’m happy to see that it’s not a generational thing when I agree completely with Yglesias. I think he makes an important distinction: What many people call multitasking is actually switching between tasks rapidly. Like Yglesias, I do that all the time. With music on in the background, I’ll be working on a blog post or writing something for the Center, switch over to read an e-mail that just came in, flip back to the blog post for a bit, flip over to a news site to see if anything’s happening in the world I ought to know about, take a phone call, flip back to the blog post, check in on Facebook for a second, then crank up a tune I really like that just came on and pick up the guitar behind me to jam along, then flip back to the blog post.

But, as Yglesias says, “I can really only carry out one linguistic function at a time—I’m reading, or I’m writing, or I’m thinking—and so I need to decide what’s what.” For instance, sometimes when I’m on the phone, an e-mail will come in and I’ll look at it. If I try to actually read it, though, it’s far harder – and sometimes impossible – to keep track of the phone conversation. You’ve probably been on the phone with someone who has attempted that and heard their voice get that far away tone that indicates you don’t have their full attention.

Like Yglesias, I doubt that today’s 20-year-olds are actually any better at that – though they may think they are. He talks about college kids sitting in lecture halls listening to their instructors while looking at Facebook. Something tells me they’re not absorbing all that they think they are. I could be wrong – but I bet their mothers’ have heard that same far-away tone in their voice during more than one phone conversation.

When multitasking first came to computers, it was not true multitasking, though it looked like it to the user. Two programs might be running simultaneously, but the processor was actually switching between tasks rapidly (today’s iPhone pulls much the same trick). Today’s multi-core processors can actually handle true multitasking.

But I don’t think our single-core brains can.

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