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More on Multitasking

Multitasking came up in the comments on my last post, and this story from Science Daily provides a discouraging finding about the practice. Researchers at Boston College did a study in which they set subjects in a room with a television set and a computer, then instructed them to “use either device” according to their own wishes.

The two researchers, management profs S. Adam Brasel and James Gips, mounted cameras in the room to track the subjects’ eyes as they shifted from  one screen to the other.  They expected to see lots of switching back and  forth, but—this is the main finding—were astonished at the actual rate of shifting: “a staggering 120 times in 27.5 minutes.”

Brasel terms the frequency “shocking.”

A further surprise was that the subjects vastly underestimated their rate of switching, setting it at 15 times per hour. Their actual rate exceeded it by nearly 10 times. Some of the subjects apparently believed that they checked the  computer only during TV commercials or, on the other hand, watched TV only while Web pages loaded.

Other findings:

• Computers are more popular, gathering 68.4 percent of total minutes

• While  younger users are thought of as big multitaskers, “men and women over 40 who participated in the study still switched an average of nearly 100 times in 27.5 minutes.”

• Rarely did a user stick to one medium for more than one mminute.

Apart from the fleeting attention habits these multimedia environments foster, one can add another implication. Digital commenters often speak of these tools as personally empowering and customizing, regarding screens as allowing individuals more freedom and choice than ever before. But the underestimation of switching suggests that screen behaviors aren’t entirely a matter of choice, that the conditions have effects on behavior that aren’t entirely conscious.

This is why when people respond to skepticism about digital tools that the tools themselves are neutral, they make laptops and cellphones, etc., too benign.  The screen isn’t neutral, and its uses are not entirely up to the user. It’s an invitation, one people accept sometimes without fully realizing it.

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