Unitasking. Really.

Studies of efficiency by multitaskers have been nearly unanimous and almost entirely dismal. The more tasks being attempted at once, the lower the efficiency of each task performance. But what if we did it the other way around?

unitask 6Work is organized—predominantly, not entirely—around the idea that productivity is a good thing and, to a lesser extent, that efficiency is good as well. Given that, it is easy to say that whatever impedes those values is a bad thing and, as a rule, we give bad names to bad things. We call the depth of attention of a multitasker, “shallow” and complain that span of attention is choppy. Each episode of attention is “short.” [1]

In a conversation one morning this week—Starbucks, where else?—we were talking about the proportion of people whose ability to attend and to relate to persons who are physically there and to feel empathy for them are all eroding as online time increases. We imagined, in the conversation, that 30% of the workforce [2] was suffering this deficit. Then we speculated about what would happen when that 30% became 80%.

Where to take this Starbucks Caucus-inspired reflection? I’d like to try to look at it in two ways in this essay. The first is the standard succession of cultures based on generations. Every generation deplores the shortcomings of the next generation, etc. The second is a little harder. It asks us to speculate about whether a given cultures really works for its members. What if living life in a certain way is just bad for people? Will they notice the bad effects and go back to what worked?

OK. Let’s see how this goes.

If four out of every five workers has this “condition,” then it is, by definition, “normal” and is therefore not a “condition” as we normally use that word. It is just how people are. How are people? Well, they maintain task focus for…oh…ten minutes at a time. They have many more contacts than people used to have and are, in that sense, more “social.” They can handle somewhere between four and six tasks simultaneously, without any unacceptable loss of efficiency. That’s what people are like in the new normal.

I assure you that a paragraph like that one would not be written by anyone of myunitask 2 generation, and, although I did write it, I found it difficult and I had to go back and scrub out all the “naturally occurring” pejorative words. What a person of my generation would have said would have sounded like a lament. “Kids today!” we would have said. “They don’t have real relationships because they don’t know how. They have markedly reduced levels of empathy. They have virtually no attention span at all. They persist in doing “too many” things at once, thereby depriving themselves of any really clear experience and insuring that their task performance will be poor.”

This is the classic dilemma: we said/they said. The statistically normal traits become the values—the norms—of every generation. We value these things; they value those things. We are statistically normal—we are the norm, in both senses of the word—and they are “deviant,” in the very limited sense that they deviate from the norm. When the generational change occurs, they will be statistically normal and we will be “deviant”—which is not so bad, really, because we will also be old—and they will come up with pejorative names for the traits we valued. For example, I might say that you, the Millennial [3] I am talking to, “can’t keep your attention on the subject at hand.” You might prize your ability to move smoothly and efficiently among the many tasks you are simultaneously tracking.

This is a pretty familiar argument so far. It is exacerbated in our time because the pace of change is so fast and the power of peers is so much stronger than the power of parents. The result is that one generation is more different from the preceding generation than was once the case. But there is another argument embedded in this one and to get at that second argument, we are going to have to take a short hike and start at another conceptual trailhead.

What if it doesn’t work? Then what?

unitask 3What if the society has adopted patterns of behavior that insure that nearly everyone will acquire a disease that, to an outsider, could be easily prevented. [5] Doing things “the way we do them here,” a rough and ready definition of culture, will get you all the deficiencies and all the diseases that those decisions lead to. If beri beri is one of the natural consequences and you are an observant member of the culture, you will get beri beri.

Members of the group who do not have beri beri comprise the datum to be explained. Why don’t they have beri beri? No one asks, in this society, why everyone else does have it. Here, at last, we move away from the conflict of generations, by which Generation A accuses Generation B of failing to meet “the standards,” by which they mean Generation A’s standards. In time, Generation B says the same thing to Generation C, and so on.

If the shallow distracted mode of “attending,” it is almost a courtesy to call it attending at all, is like the beri beri in the example above, then it is the natural result of “how we do things around here.” It is, simply, “culture.”

unitask 4Some of us, I’m guessing it will be mostly older people, are “unculturated.” [6] We tend to severely limit our attention, imagining that paying full attention to the one person you are listening to is somehow a good thing. Naturally, this comes with the loss of the other five things a “normal person” would have been—and really should have been—attending to at the same time. It’s sad, really, but it is how they are.

And we perseverate. Not only do we limit ourselves to one interaction at a time, but we extend this interaction over many minutes. A Millennial might say of his parents, “I have seen them engage in this focused “one to one” thing for as much as an hour, completely oblivious of all the other things that are going on, on Facebook for instance, during that time.”

I’m finished with the snide language now. I allowed myself a few paragraphs of it to try to represent the wonderment, the utter incomprehension, of members of the dominant culture in this future time. These are the people, remember, who, back in our day—back in the time when our cultural assumptions were dominant and the Millennials were deviant—needed help because them had shallow relationships and scattered attention and no inner resources at all. Now I am trying to represent their sense of who we are, under the cultural assumptions that they represent and which are now the dominant assumptions, i.e. the assumptions that undergird “how we do things around here.”

unitask 5The question I was asking—the beri beri question from Putney and Putney—was this: “What will they do when they discover that the new cultural practices don’t work?” Following out the Millennial prescription would, in this view, produce people who are damaged. They have no stable selfhood because they don’t take the time it requires. They have no intimate relationships because they don’t take the time such relationships require. They don’t take the time because more than 27 seconds off-line feels like a month in solitary confinement and whatever you have to do to prevent that dreadful feeling…well, that’s what you ought to do.

What will they do, upon discovering all these serious deficits? They will redefine “personhood” and “relationship” and “alone time” so that these notions fit with the cultural assumptions they have made and which they prefer.  These preferences will become so strong that not following them will look like “deviance” and, of course, they will be deviant by that time. They will be a certain specifiable distance from the new norm.

My guess is that that’s where we are going. The alternative scenario is that people will notice how inadequate the new culture is and there will be a successful backlash against it. Millennials, or, more likely, their children, will reject the norms of their parents and will yearn for an older and a more satisfying time. They will want to talk to people like us who remember things like “conversation,” people who know how to “unitask.”

I say that is possible. I don’t think it is the most likely scenario. The most likely scenario is much darker than that.

[1] Ordinarily, we remember not to say that it is “too short,” because if we said that, we would have to say “too short for what?” and that leads us down a path we are not prepared to travel.
[2] There isn’t a playforce, is there?
[3] “The millennial generation” is used casually as if everyone knew what everyone else meant. Even researchers use a very broad band of birth years to identify this group; birth years from 1980 to 2000. I think it is partly chronological and partly stylistic.
[4] I’m going back to Snell and Gail Putney’s The Adjusted American: Normal Neuroses in the Individual and Society. Many books postulating the notion of a “sick society” were written during this era, but this is one of the easiest to approach.
[5] Notice how important the process is in this word. We would not be called “uncultured,” a state of not being in harmony with the culture. We would be called “unculturated,” meaning that we have not gone through the process of being brought into alignment with the culture. That is what the -ate part of “unculturated” does. It means that we are not hopeless, but we may need…oh…incentives or perhaps just extra time.


About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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