Those (dangerous) multitaskers

Time Magazine’s cover story this week, The Multitasking Generation (subscription required), takes a hard look at the extent to which teenagers in our culture are “wired” and what that’s doing to their brains (that’s right) and family life. There’s a lot of good information presented, but the whining with which the scientific and academic communities make their case is a sad commentary on institutional America. I can’t give you the quotes, because I don’t have access to the online article, but academia complains about kids multi-tasking during lectures (although some professors are engaging students with multimedia lectures), and scientists express fear about the “types” of people multitasking is presenting to the culture.

I think the skepticism is what gets me the most, and for institutions, that’s the sure path to irrelevance (after all, if there’s something wrong with “them,” then WE don’t have to change). Maybe we don’t need lectures anymore. I mean, lectures go back to the earliest forms of civilization — they’re the epitome of one-way, top-down communications. I talk; you listen. But what do people actually learn in lectures?

One scientist laments that multitaskers want black and white simplicity, as if everybody agrees that that’s a bad thing. Says who? Well, cough cough, that’s, cough cough, absurd, Terry. After all, cough cough, life is complex, cough cough, and people need to, cough cough, be exposed to that complexity.

Who’s made it so complex? Those intellectual elites who benefit from the, cough cough, complexities, because they think they’re the only ones who understand it.

Look, I’m not saying there’s nothing “wrong” with generation‑M, as it’s called. But I challenge you to deconstruct your version of “wrong,” before assuming you’re “right.”


  1. The very concept of “multi-tasking” seems a bit overblown to me.

    At work, I have a desktop PC and my laptop, one open to my work email, the other accessing my Gmail, and each will usually have some form of work-in-progress on it as well — a draft of a press release in Word on the PC, a set of photos being sized and optimized in Photoshop on my laptop.

    The desktop will have my IM program open. My laptop will have iTunes running sometimes.

    But I don’t simultaneously write, do photoshop and read email. I do one at a time, switching back and forth between them, answering emails or IMs as needed, and stopping all of it to answer the phone or speak to a co-worker as needed.

    Multi-tasking seems to imply doing mutiple tasks all at the same time, but I think what most “multi-taskers” really are doing is keeping all of their projects and tools at hand, and working on them one at a time, switching between them frequently.

    Of course, the construction worker has his hammer, nails, nail gun, lumber and other tools and materials all scattered around.


  2. Terry,

    Technology will bring huge level of disruption to our classrooms over the next few years — and that is a very good thing. It will open up the doors of academia. Our academic institutions have been closed off from the public for centuries. Even in the best schools, the quality of teaching can vary tremendously. You can send your kids to the most expensive school in the US, but often you don’t know exactly do you’re getting for your money — we don’t know what actually happens in the classrooms.

    But now there are ways that will allow us to find out — podcast lessons, student blogs, mp3s. Imagine you had two professors on podcasts. If you knew that one was lousy and the other was great, who would you listen to? Shouldn’t you have to right to choose if you’re paying the same fees as every one else? Soon, it the learners themselves will the information to be able to decide these issues for themselves. Meanshile, market forces will drive the process of change. I would argue that, within a few years, there will even be a number of academic superstars selling their lessons on iTunes — or an equivalent. If it solves a problem, and helps the learners why not? If he truly is a great teacher, then let more people benefit from his gift.

    The more this opens up, the quicker that poor teaching practices will be weeded out. The notion that education is about one person handing down information to another, will not survive. Nor will the idea that students are too dumb to figure out how to multi-task for themselves.

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  3. Methinks Time protests too much! If we watch, and talk, to young people, what we might find is that what they are doing is assimilating and understanding new technology by multitasking in their social lives. Teaching them how to manage their media should be our priority–that cellphones and social chitchat in class will not be tolerated, but that you could watch and review a lecture on podcast later might be very acceptable.

    Although using a podcast to review a prof sitll might not be as helpful as talking to friends who were in a class with him/her. A prof could get coaching to produce a slick podcast, but what that person is like f2f can only be learned w.o.m.

  4. Excellent obervations. I agree with your conclusions.

    After working on the university campus for 8 years as a Christian campus minister, I was dismayed to discover that I was the one who was “close-minded” because I believed that there was more to this life than what we see or understand.

    However, I have always thought that the “this is all there is” argument was the close-minded one.

    Anything that we can do to cast off the elitism present in higher education and culture in favor or a dialogical culture will only benefit everyone.

    While I don’t believe that everyone is “right,” I do believe that truth wins out every time when it is given the platform to be investigated, viewed, and allowed to be considered.

    Too often what we have are folks telling us their “spin” on truth, rather than giving everyone the information in “black and white” and allowing people to make up their own minds.

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