Multitasking as Microliberty

Is it possible to do many things well, at once? A lot depends on how you define simultaneity. “‘A core limitation [of the brain] is an inability to concentrate on two things at once,’ [according to] René Marois, a neuroscientist and director of the Human Information Processing Laboratory at Vanderbilt University” (quoted in an article critical of multitasking.) According to this piece, “Listening to soothing background music while studying may improve concentration. But other distractions — most songs with lyrics, instant messaging, television shows — hamper performance.”

I have to dissent here. I find that I need a well-near constant aural background to get much done during the day….and sadly, soothing music is often just not loud enough to drown out the random noise that constantly assaults one in urban areas. Perhaps this music-addiction is just idiosyncratic to me (and surgeons). But I think the anti-multitasking literature is insufficiently attentive to idiosyncrasy; to wit:

[R]esearchers reported . . . that they used magnetic resonance imaging to pinpoint the bottleneck in the brain and to measure how much efficiency is lost when trying to handle two tasks at once. Study participants were given two tasks and were asked to respond to sounds and images. The first was to press the correct key on a computer keyboard after hearing one of eight sounds. The other task was to speak the correct vowel after seeing one of eight images. The researchers said that they did not see a delay if the participants were given the tasks one at a time. But the researchers found that response to the second task was delayed by up to a second when the study participants were given the two tasks at about the same time.

I like the application of this idea to driving with a hands-free cell-phone–I’m constantly amazed by the risks people take while hurtling at 60MPH in a 4000 pound hunk of steel. But I fail to see the extrapolability of many of the other experiments mentioned in the article. Sure, computer code writers may be distracted by email….but perhaps the epistolary stimuli are keeping them going till they get to their more productive moments. Similarly, on any particular day, I may spend way too much time perusing politicaltheory.info or reviewing all the blog headlines in my RSS feed, but the types of serendipitous finds I make on those procrastinating peregrinations can cut a Gordian knot I’ve been wrestling with for hours.

Nevertheless, I have to admit that I would love to have the self-discipline to, say, totally block out email for a few hours each morning. But I am afraid that the new multitasking research is going to ultimately feed into employee monitoring/prodding programs oblivious to the capricious character of productivity in many information age workers. I guess my fears here are driven by a scene in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, where a worker of the future is presented with a bureaucratic email and given the guideline “This email should take 8 minutes to review.” The worker calculates that perusing the turgid document for seven minutes may win her points for efficiency, but any less will lead to demerits for failing to read it carefully enough. Nine minutes could land her in a dread “Remedial Speed Reading” course!

Which leads to one last random reflection here….what do libertarians think of workplace surveillance like that? Is it part of the inviolable freedom of employers? Or is there some role for law to carve out, say, basic privacy rights for employees? I plan to review Russ Muirhead’s Just Work some time to look for ideas. For now, Brandeis’s old quote on vacations provides some food for thought: “I can do a year’s worth of work in 11 months, but not 12.”

Photo Credit: Flickr/Krossbow.

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