Are multi-taskers the high tech version of Emperor New Clothes? PBS show digital_nation: life on the virtual frontier

PBS Frontline has a show “Digital Nation: Life in the Virtual Frontier”, showing Feb 2, 2010


Going through the synopsis I found this interesting discussing bright students and multitasking.

"I teach the most brilliant students in the world," says MIT professor and clinical psychologist Sherry Turkle, who describes the challenges of teaching students who are surfing the Internet and texting during class. "But they have done themselves a disservice by drinking the Kool-Aid and believing that a multitasking learning environment will serve their best purposes. There are just some things that are not amenable to being thought about in conjunction with 15 other things."


A multitasker herself, Dretzin travels to California to the Communication Between Humans and Interactive Media (CHIMe) Lab, where Stanford professor Clifford Nass has been studying the effectiveness of self-proclaimed multitaskers. After taking one of Nass' tests, Dretzin is shocked by her poor results. "It turns out multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking. They get distracted constantly. Their memory is very disorganized. Recent work we've done suggests they're worse at analytic reasoning," Nass tells Dretzin. "We worry that it may be creating people who are unable to think well and clearly."

Which brought up an interesting observation of multi-taskers.  We all know people who are proud how of how many things they can do at the same time.

But, are they living in an illusion, like The Emperor’s New Clothes

An Emperor who cares for nothing but his wardrobe hires two weavers who promise him the finest suit of clothes from a fabric invisible to anyone who is unfit for his position or "just hopelessly stupid". The Emperor cannot see the cloth himself, but pretends that he can for fear of appearing unfit for his position or stupid; his ministers do the same. When the swindlers report that the suit is finished, they dress him in mime and the Emperor then marches in procession before his subjects. A child in the crowd calls out that the Emperor is wearing nothing at all and the cry is taken up by others. The Emperor cringes, suspecting the assertion is true, but holds himself up proudly and continues the procession.

Douglas Rushkoff makes the point of fooling ourselves.

So what does it mean if we multitaskers are actually fooling ourselves into believing we're competent when we're not? "If multitasking is hurting their ability to do these fundamental tasks," Nass explained matter-of-factly, "life becomes difficult. Some of studies show they are worse at analytic reasoning. We are mostly shocked. They think they are great at it." We're not just stupid and vulnerable online—we simultaneously think we're invincible. And that attitude, new brain research shows, has massive carryover into real life.

If you believe this, then the next step is to think what is a better way than being an obsessive multitasker.  One place to look is Matthieu Ricard a famous Tibetan monk.

Matthieu writes on dealing with stress and anxiety, and interesting enough he quotes the same Stanford research.

Tip #2: One thing at a time
If you have many things to do, do them one at a time. You will work faster and better this way. Recent studies conducted at Stanford University revealed that multitasking actually reduce people’s ability to concentrate and even slows down the capacity to switch between several tasks. Multitaskers perform worse and non-multitaskers in all attention tasks that have been studied. In other words, multitasking takes us more time to achieve worse results.

The other two tips are:

Tip #1: Do away with your worries
If there’s a solution, then there’s no need to worry. If no solution exists, there is no point to worry.

Tip #3: A bit of meditation
If you are gripped by anxiety, pause for a moment and simply try to be aware of this anxiety. As you «examine» your anxiety with the eye of mindfulness, it will loose its potency. Why? Because the part of you mind that is aware of the anxiety is not itself anxious. It is simply aware. As mindfulness expands, the anxiety that upset you will gradually fade and make way for renewed inner peace.

Are you going to spend more time muiltasking or meditating?

Confession: I”ve been mediating since I was fourteen.  So, I am biased on this subject. :-)