Multitasking: a mug’s game?

We like to think of computers as devices with an astounding ability to do many things at once but the truth is, for single CPU computers, tasks are performed one at a time. The illusion of multitasking is handled by a very fast scheduler that facilitates the constant swapping in and out of various tasks. It’s a very effective trick of basic physics and because of the incredible speed with which it operates, for all intents and purposes the device is accomplishing many things at what seems to be the same time, even though it is focusing on only one task at any particular point in time.

The human brain is the same and I was reminded of this restriction yesterday while I attended the Communitech Tech Leadership Conference in Waterloo, Ontario. A strong roster of industry thought leaders (Geoffrey Moore, Scott Berkun, Watts Wacker, among others) was what attracted me and although they each delivered on the promise, I had to struggle a bit to get the value because their keynote presentations were deflated by a strange decision by organizers. The stage was flanked on either side by large screens that alternated between showing close-up views of the speaker (good, since the room was large) and flashing real-time snapshots of the tweets of the attendees (bad). The intended effect of the organizers to have tweets displayed so prominently while someone was speaking could only possibly have been one thing…to distract the attendees away from the presenter and focus on what we the attendees were saying.  Huh? What good could come from that strategy? What also baffled me was that the keynote speakers didn’t demand that the organizers shut down those tweeting side screens for it really was the height of rudeness. I know modern opinion is that younger generations are so good at multitasking that what might appear to be distractions to older folk are instead just examples of how the young are able to accomplish more tasks by juggling many things at once. I don’t buy it.

Setting aside the fact that not giving the speaker their attention was poor mannered and disrespectful, the truth is that by focusing on crafting a 140 character slice of wisdom the tweeters were missing the message of the talk. The human brain, like a computer, can only perform one task at a time. See this study by the Kaiser Family Foundation that describes the nature of multitasking with different media (TV, iPods, reading, etc) and how the brain actually processes the associated tasks. In it you’ll find research showing that while humans can perceive two stimuli (a speaker’s words and images of tweets in the example of the conference I attended), they cannot process them simultaneously.  “When the two channels convey semantically different information, viewers can recall less information, and often successfully focus on one channel only.”  As our parents used to tell us, turn the TV off while doing your homework.  And as an aside, tweeters, really, what is the rush to get stuff out there? As I said in an earlier blog post, there is no winning in that.

About Peter Armaly
I get jazzed by automation, big data, and blockchain tech. Business, technology, and fitness are things I understand. Scotch, wine, food, and fiction are things I appreciate.

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