Social messaging can quick way for a traveller to find a friend’s recommendation for dinner in a strange city, for a salesperson to get a quick answer to a question when a customer’s on the phone. Realtime communication can enable rapid response, but a constant stream of chatter can be a time-consuming distraction.
In a Psychology Today article posted by Linda Stone and retweeted by Tim O’Reilly, a recent study by two MIT neurosciencentists shows that multitasking and distraction make people less efficient at getting tasks done.
In response to O’Reilly’s post, pioneering internet educator Howard Rheingold questioned the assumptions around the research and its interpretation: “Regarding neuroscience abt attention, distraction, multitasking – is efficiency highest & only goal? What about discovery? Pattern-finding?” If multitasking makes us inefficient, is efficiency always desirable?
In response to Rheingold’s question, I shared an article I read this weekend, contrasting the efficiency-oriented mindset of web developers with the focus of game developers. In a game context, the focus is on fun, story, character, not efficiency. There are also some salient differences differences between social media and traditional games: “Of course the game world thinks of games as built by game designers & the games we play in social media are often nomic [i.e. players make up the rules]. Also what efficiency misses is that in social media we’re often paying attention to people not tasks.” Rheingold took this one step further “Which leads me to wonder how much of the dreaded multitasking we do online is social discovery and relationship maintenance/repair.”
Efficiency isn’t necessarily the goal in social media. People are making social contact, developing patterns of social gestures that maintain relationships. When a colleague in Canada posts about tasty mango sushi, and a colleague in Portland, Oregon empathizes with turn toward fall weather favoring warm soup, we’re not just spewing pointless trivia, we’re sharing a personal connection that otherwise doesn’t happen separated by many hundreds of miles. Mark Drapeau makes this point with typical good-humored provocativeness: “I think that collaboration is the end result of leveraging social networks, which is in actuality what the social networking tools are for.”
Rheingold proposes, based on his own experience that multi-tasking may also help find meaning in diverse information: “I surf and task switch constantly, store and forward what I find, make notes, often find overarching patterns. Rheingold believes that students sometimes need to learn to be less focused: “Focus has its place, but many of my students who are adept at it need to unlearn dependence on it to zoom out to big picture questions.”
Jim Pivonka agrees that that multi-tasking is useful for young people learning, but brings evidence that it is otherwisecounterproductive for getting things done: “Other than the learning task, multitasking & high performance task execution suspected pretty much mutually exclusive.
In addition to learning, Rheingold posits art as an activity that is valuable, but not about efficiency. “To me, making art is an activity that is valuable for it’s own sake, not for the artifact or its utility, so efficiency is orthogonal… To paraphrase Kierkegaard, for me, making art “is a reality to be experienced, not a problem to be solved,” or artifact 2 B displayed.. dl willson suggests that art may be efficient in a different way, “@hrheingold I would argue that art is efficient…because art is a spark. “Art” is not the object but the spark.”
To be honest, I am not sure that I am correctly representing the dialog between Rheingold and Willson; they may be able to correct my mis-reading. Regardless of the respective understandings of art, it is clear that whichever definition would not meet the tests of the neuroscientists for task-based efficiency!!
Several others suggest alternative models for focus. Brad Ovnell cites a different type of focus needed in Karate: “Loved sparring in karate b/c it developed ability to focus & look wide at once.” Gregory McNish suggests that perhaps focus should have a rhythm, in and out, like breathing.
Jonathan Pratt, an educator with neuroscience background, suggests that the neuroscience research is looking at task efficiency since that is easy to research: “I think it’s a matter of tackling the easier/more quantifiable questions first…brain’s very complex & neuro’s a young field.”
For Rheingold, the hyper-focus on efficiency calls to mind his earlier reading of work by Jacques Ellul, who articulated in the 1950s a grim vision of society being taken over by “technique” – technologies and highly structured activities that eat away at human autonomy and community.
A summary of the conversation: there are goals and values for multi-tasking and social media, other than task-based efficiency. Social gestures, learning, pattern-finding, art – these are all very different from the task completion that is shown to be hampered by multi-tasking. Findings about the impact of multi-tasking on task completion is useful but limited. Hopefully future research will broaden focus to examine the relationship between the experiences of multi-tasking and ambient sociality and other dimensions of life.