Kevin Drum posts a fun screed against it. I didn’t know the experimental evidence was so damning, although I’m not surprised. But I am surprised that there is little consideration of what I would have thought was an obvious, major category of multitasking, going back to the Peripatetic School: engaging something with your mind while doing something unrelated, and probably repetitive, with your other muscles. Reading a book while riding the stationary bike. Playing scales or exercises on your instrument, over and over, while listening to the news. What about plain old reading a book while listening to music?
Drum links to an interview that rules this out, definitionally: “Multitasking as we’re studying it here involves looking at multiple media at the same time. So we’re not talking about people watching the kids and cooking and stuff like that. We’re talking about using information, multiple sources.” And there may be a music exception. Maybe we have a special module for that.
Fine, define terms how you like. But this seems misleading, because ‘task’ naturally covers cooking and kid-watching. Multitasking is not necessarily multi-learning but, in the most general sense, multi-doing. For that matter, watching the kids while cooking is obviously exactly like answering every email instantly while listening to a lecture: namely, you are likely to mess something up because you are distracted by the other thing. This may work out ok so long as the threshold of adequacy is low. I would have predicted the success story would be some class of multitaskers who are low-level satisficers. Trying to do many easy things, mostly not failing.
It seems wrong to tie multitasking, as a subject of investigation, to all these proliferating media sources and devices. What’s tied to the devices is the addiction element, not the multi-element. An inner (as opposed to outer) pressure to divide attention. (No one compulsively watches the kids while cooking. It never gets fun, per se.) Finding out that
high multitaskers compulsive iPhone fondlers are mostly bad at handling it all seems a bit like finding out that heavy drinkers are typically not good at drinking responsibly. Just as ‘alcoholic’ is a better term than ‘heavy drinker’ for getting a handle on the reasons for the results, so ‘media addict’ rather than ‘high multitasker’ seems like the thing to focus on if you are going to focus, narrowly, on high media consumption cases. (Maybe ‘addict’ is too strong, but surely ‘mild addiction’ is mild enough.)
UPDATE: I didn’t mean to imply that heavy drinkers are ‘typically’, i.e. mostly, alcoholics; just that the explanation for the large numbers of heavy drinkers who, despite increased tolerance, can’t drink responsibly, is typically alcoholism. The naive argument for high competence multitasking is that you ‘build up a tolerance’, as it were: you learn to take more in without being overwhelmed. The fallacy in assuming this will tend to translate into competence is easily seen in the alcohol case, so the analogy seems apt.