Saturday, September 11, 2010

Multitask Me

Headline from The Onion: “Are you checking your email often enough?”

My friend Katrin recently showed me her Twitter. “I’m very careful, though,” she said, “whose tweets I receive.” I asked her how many friends she has whose messages she receives. “Sixty,” she replied, but explained how a tweet can come from far, far away. “Most of the time they’re citing someone else’s tweet.”

Katrin got me counting. She runs a fairly large organization, and in addition to following sixty tweeters, I guestimated that on an hourly basis she also gets several text messages and at least several phone calls. She has a Facebook account, uses both Skype and MSN Messenger. Add to that three or four daily newspapers plus whatever news she follows online. Then there’s television and radio—she’s almost always listening to public radio. Whatever it all sums to, the amount of information she is receiving and sending on a daily basis is rather frightening. She’s a real multitasker, the type of person the modern world rewards. “Can you even walk and chew gum at the same time?” my mother used to chide me. Well, Katrin certainly can.

Now consider the novelist Jonathan Franzen. Franzen is so unimpressed with multitasking I doubt he’d even deign to use the word. In a recent interview with Time magazine, he remarked:

"We are so distracted by and engulfed by the technologies we've created, and by the constant barrage of so-called information that comes our way, that more than ever to immerse yourself in an involving book seems socially useful. The place of stillness that you have to go to to write, but also to read seriously, is the point where you can actually make responsible decisions, where you can actually engage productively with an otherwise scary and unmanageable world."

So that Franzen can engage productively in this scary and unmanageable world, he has created an environment which is the antithesis of Katrin’s. He not only has no internet, but he has removed temptation, as well. "What you have to do," Franzen told Time, "is you plug in an Ethernet cable with superglue, and then you saw off the little head of it."

At about the same time Katrin was trying to convince me of how cool Twitter is, my friend Mingus sent me an article somewhat vindicating Mr. Franzen’s world view. Scientists have discovered that the faster we shift between pieces of information, the less sense we can make of any of it.

They say there’s a region of the brain called the posterior lateral prefrontal cortex (pLPFC) which is a routing hub for inputs. If information comes in too quickly the pLPFC bottlenecks—queuing some of the info and ignoring the rest—and the routing hub slows down. This means multitasking is a case of diminishing marginal returns. The more information you pile on in short bursts, the less you get to keep.

I suppose Katrin would argue that’s why she only receives the tweets of 60 friends—you gotta draw the line somewhere. And the shape of Katrin’s head seems normal: I see no swelling of her pLPFC.

When Katrin mentioned sixty friends, my first thought was not their tweets, but the number sixty. I don’t know if I even have sixty friends. If I expand it to acquaintances, then perhaps. But one thing I’m damned sure of: I don’t have sixty friends or acquaintances all of whom have something intelligent to say on a daily basis. Even the world’s better columnists can only manage a few hundred good words per week. Out of curiosity, I did the math and determined that if I tweeted my column in a tweet’s outer bound of 140-character installments, then it would take me two weeks to get it done. So maybe Katrin’s tweeting friends aren’t so vacant after all. Perhaps they’re simply fond of the serial?

Maybe it’s just a matter of personal taste, but too much information makes me want to stock up on Early Times bourbon and push the furniture against the wall. Even without Twitter, I have enough trouble receiving information. The biggest transmitter of information around me is my four-month-old son, Robert. All day long, even when sleeping, he sends and receives tweets. At first I suspected him of being an alien, making constant transmissions to the mother ship. Lately, I’m favoring the theory that he’s mimicking the sound the coffee pot makes.

What Robert has helped me realize is that I’m capable of receiving only a finite amount of information. The addition of Robert means the subtraction of other inputs in order to stave off the Early Times purchase. I still welcome print editions of Postimees, the New Yorker, and the New York Review of Books into my home, and I get a regular shipment of books from Amazon. All that is plenty. I’ve shut down the invasive Skype and Facebook, and I try to answer the phone only at reasonable hours, selecting a certain part of each day to devote to returning calls. We’ve killed our TV, too. Or, rather, we chose not to follow when the country went digital. Now it just sits there, taking on a kind of significance like the decaying Statue of Liberty in Planet of the Apes.

My wife Liina is also anti-Twitter (“Reading about everyone else’s lives I don’t understand when you have time for your own”), but ironically she still wants a digibox. If she wants to pay for it and install it, then I’ll be pleased to watch a few of the TV programs I like.

But in the meantime I’m enjoying the silence. I’ve got a stack of books I’m working my way through, though Robert tends to interrupt often, forcing me to digest them in 140-character bursts. All this has made me realize that Jonathan Franzen is right. In the 21st century, taking someone to that “place of stillness,” or getting and holding a human being’s undivided attention will have the significance of America’s 1969 moonshot.

So if you’ve opened the newspaper, begun reading, and reached this point in my column, then, you’ve spent about seven minutes in a twitter-free place of stillness. I’m flattered, of course. But, more importantly, how do you feel?

Help Liina buy a digibox.