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Multitasking: The Revenge Of The Machines

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It may surprise, or even shock some of you that I would say this, but “multitasking” is a highly overrated characteristic in this day and age.

Don’t misunderstand me, however. In the universe of technology and computers, multitasking–the ability to simultaneously perform several, often unrelated functions–is a highly desirable thing. I am only too delighted that my computer can download information, get me a weather update, juggle figures, deliver mail and let me know when it’s time for me to attend a meeting–all seemingly at the same instant in time.

The trouble comes when we as humans seek to duplicate this kind of prodigious feat using only our own brains and abilities–and Lord knows many of us do try to do so in this increasingly fast-paced world of ours. Take the driver I saw once who was tooling along at 70 miles-per-hour in the left lane of the Garden State Parkway while simultaneously staring into her mirror and making the most grotesque faces in order to properly apply her makeup.

I’m not sure how she was steering the vehicle or looking at the road, but there’s no doubt she was multitasking. In fact, she was probably also having a phone conversation or at least listening to the car radio at the same time. I suppose one could have admired her apparent dexterity, but for my part, I was deathly afraid she would drop her eyeliner and come barreling into my vehicle while she searched the floor for the missing pencil.

Let’s face it, computers and other devices have a decided advantage over us when it comes to multitasking. Unless they wear down over time, most technological devices don’t really have to worry about getting tired, smudging their makeup, or otherwise being distracted. If you don’t believe me, just trying jumping up and down and making loud noises in front of your computer as it performs its daily tasks. No matter how much you rant, jeer or gesticulate wildly, you will find the machine remains unfazed, continuing to do what you have told it to do. Amazing, I know.

This is not to say that there aren’t successful instances of human multitasking, however. If you’ve ever seen a “one-man band,” you know that a single individual can play several instruments at once and produce at least a semblance of musical entertainment. On the other hand, you would probably also admit that the overall quality of that music falls somewhat short of that produced by a group of players who are each devoted to a single instrument.

And there’s something about us as humans that makes us want to compete with the machines we create. Doubtless you have heard about IBM’s Deep Blue computer and the chess masters who have pitted their skills against this monolith. While there were some early human victories, the more recent competitions have gone to the machine.

Why should this be? Simply because the computer, once defeated, will never be defeated in the same way again. It will always remember wrong moves and never again make them. In addition, its dedicated capabilities (remember, it doesn’t “think” about anything beyond the chess board) can calculate possibilities for many permutations of moves ahead. At some point, that’s more than a human brain can handle.

It could also be argued that chess masters who play Deep Blue are multitasking in that while playing, their brains must necessarily process all the sensory information from the environment around them, not to mention any attendant emotions that may cloud clearer thinking. The machine, of course, has no such handicaps.

Oh sure, I admit it’s kind of neat for a person to be able to do two or more things at the same time, but I wonder about how this multiple activity affects the quality of each individual task.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health Web site, the principal characteristics of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity. Is it such a stretch to imagine that the hyperactivity of human multitaskers could result in inattention to some tasks and impulsive–that is, not well-thought-out–actions?

In fact, I don’t find it at all unreasonable to postulate that ADHD is, at least in part, an attempt by humans to duplicate–or have their kids duplicate–the impossibly multifaceted activities of computers and other devices.

The only problem is that, as we have seen, multitasking doesn’t work well for humans. That’s why we call ADHD a disorder. So let’s stop making a cult out of multitasking and return to our human roots. After all, the computers and other devices serve our needs and wants–at least for the moment.


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