Yes, I know I post a fair number of articles about the Internet generation. (In fact, I just created a category, and I’ll likely spend some time reading back over the last couple years and back-tagging them.) But this one jumped out at me for a couple reasons.
For one, the article debunks the myth of multitasking. Now I know for a fact that somebody invented the word as a defense mechanism when somebody (likely with my temperament) got angry at her or him for ignoring the conversation at hand in favor of a television show or web site or something of the sort. And knowing a scant bit about computers, I know full well that there is no such thing, strictly speaking, as true multi-tasking: there’s only a shuttle between tasks that splits a system’s resources. The nice thing about newer computers is that they can do so at a speed that human senses can’t detect, and like so-called motion pictures, it’s good enough for us if it appears simultaneous.
Human brains, of course, can’t switch as fast as binary circuits:
The opposite of attention is distraction, an unnatural condition and one that, as Meyer discovered in 1995, kills. Now he is convinced that chronic, long-term distraction is as dangerous as cigarette smoking. In particular, there is the great myth of multitasking. No human being, he says, can effectively write an e-mail and speak on the telephone. Both activities use language and the language channel in the brain can’t cope. Multitaskers fool themselves by rapidly switching attention and, as a result, their output deteriorates.
The same thing happens if you talk on a mobile phone while driving – even legally with a hands-free kit. You listen to language on the phone and lose the ability to take in the language of road signs. Worst of all is if your caller describes something visual, a wallpaper pattern, a view. As you imagine this, your visual channel gets clogged and you start losing your sense of the road ahead. Distraction kills – you or others.
Such is not to say that nobody can shuttle between tasks, but the fact of the matter is that, when somebody pretends to be “multitasking” while holding a conversation with you, O Reader, you’re being ignored. Let’s not lie to ourselves.
Second, the article goes after the common myth of the rising computer competency of younger people. I know for a fact, having taught seven years in computer-rich environments, that I know my way around a beige box far better than do ninety-five percent of my students, and I’m only marginally computer literate. Walking into a garage does not make one a car, and spending hours on Facebook does not make one a competent computer user:
One irony that lies behind all this is the myth that children are good at this stuff. Adults often joke that their 10-year-old has to fix the computer. But it’s not true. Studies show older people are generally more adept with computers than younger. This is because, like all multitaskers, the kids are deluding themselves into thinking that busy-ness is depth when, in fact, they are skimming the surface of cyberspace as surely as they are skimming the surface of life. It takes an adult imagination to discriminate, to make judgments; and those are the only skills that really matter.
I know full well, going into another school year in just under a month, that there will be three or four students this semester who are helping their peers navigate the web environment that their 31-year-old Miltonist teacher set up for them, and I don’t know what happened between 1995, when I graduated high school, and now. (Here’s where the crotchety old man voice kicks in.) When I was in junior high (we’re talking 1991 here), we all had the chance to take a computer class that involved not only learning the ins and outs of WordPerfect 6.0 (skills that transfer quite nicely to Word and Open Office, thank you very much) but also some basic programming (in BASIC, if you must know) and use of other computerized tools. Most of my eighth grade class took that. Now, when I see old high school friends, although most are not computer programmer and engineer types (some are), at least they know that there’s binary code going on behind things.
Now I realize that I went to a top-notch public high school in a relatively affluent suburb of Indianapolis, and I know that my class, even among Fighting Quakers, was full of overachievers. But I remember the class being populated not only by the future top-twenty-banquet attendees (I just barely made it into that one). I also know that Jon Arvin remains one of the truly influential teachers from my Indiana years (I invited him to be my guest of honor at said banquet), but even without a Jon-Arvin-caliber teacher, couldn’t schools make a little bit of room, just a little, to make people aware of how their worlds work?