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Jewish World Review Nov. 1, 2001 / 1 Mar-Cheshvan, 5762

Alan Ehrenhalt

Alan Ehrenhalt
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Mind holding this while I write? -- I'M on the phone with an editor, telling him about a column I'm writing for an Op-Ed page. After a few minutes, the conversation becomes a little one-sided. I'm not getting a response to what I say. Finally he comes back on the line. "Sorry," he says. "I was multitasking."

Aren't we all? I get the feeling sometimes that in the everyday culture of the 21st century, I'm not considered to be holding up my end if I'm not doing at least two things at once. They don't even have to be two different things. Just two things.

Think about a Power Point presentation, for example. The speaker stands there on the podium telling you that there are three kinds of management styles: A, B and C. Meanwhile, through the magic of technology, his words appear verbatim on a huge screen in front of him. This is supposed to double my understanding of the concept. Or at least speech coaches seem to think it does.

So do TV producers. They must have research telling them that if Dan Rather is declaring that floods in the Northeast will continue for a few days, it helps to have "LIKELY TO CONTINUE" shown in big letters in front of me. Actually, it doesn't help. It just makes producers feel more efficient. They are reaching two of my sensory organs at the same time, even if they are doing it with mindless repetition.

Multitasking forced its way into the news recently, when the New York legislature passed its bill restricting car cellphone use. New York is the only state that has done this so far, but there are similar laws in five other cities and six countries. Some form of cellphone bill has now been introduced in more than 40 legislatures.

The tepid nature of what New York passed, after weeks of debate, underscores how hard it would be to do something really strict about driver multitasking. The law, which takes effect later this year, exempts phones with headsets, and the fine for a first offense is $100. A bit steep, but it is still not much of a deterrent given all of the publicity it has attracted. Still, the extensive coverage suggests many of us harbor some genuine misgivings about multitasking, even as we seek new ways to do it.

A July study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that people lose time and concentration when switching between tasks. One of the study's authors noted that using a headset phone while driving is almost as much of a distraction as using a handheld phone. He also warned that multitasking reduces worker efficiency by 20% to 40%.That study picked up a fair amount of coverage. Reading the fine print, I noticed that the research was done in 1993 and 1994. The authors apparently worked on several other projects while getting it ready.

Whatever the misgivings, the opportunities only expand. Been to a baseball game lately? Stadium management doesn't seem to have much confidence in the product offered on the field. They feel obligated to bombard you for 3 hours with sounds and flashing lights. Thousands of fans are watching, listening and eating at the same time. The only senses not employed are smell and touch. Perhaps that is on the way. It would be a sensory quinella.

Actually, something like it has been tried before. Back in the 1950s, Michael Todd made a movie called The Scent of Mystery, in which a character would walk into a perfume store, and the smell of perfume would waft through the audience. Then in the 1970s, there was "Sensurround," in which the theater shook a little bit during a big earthquake scene. Neither of these technologies really caught on. They were a couple of decades ahead of their time.

What's a good way to insult someone these days? Suggest that he has the Gerald Ford problem: can't walk and chew gum simultaneously. In other words, not clever enough to perform even the simplest multitasking expected of a modern, sensorially alive adult.

Multitasking has always existed, of course. And those who were good at it have always possessed a bit of an advantage in handling the tasks of everyday life. G.K. Chesterton, the early 20th-century British novelist, supposedly had the ability to dictate a letter to a secretary while writing a different letter to a different person in longhand at the same time. Chesterton's friends saw this merely as a freakish power of concentration. Nowadays, he'd be in demand as a motivational speaker at corporate training conferences. Chesterton's intellectual multitasking permitted him to be a theologian and moral philosopher as well as a novelist. So if he were around, no doubt he'd be able to help us with one of the everyday ethical dilemmas that surround the practice: When are you required to admit that you're doing it?

A few months ago, checking e-mail while talking to a friend on the phone, I came across a really funny joke. So I told it to her. She was slightly offended - not by the joke, but by the fact that I had secretly been doing something else while talking to her. She was right. I apologized. Probably we need some rules about when multitasking is socially acceptable. But even with rules, I suspect many of us are going to get into embarrassing or ironic situations fairly often.

A few weeks ago, the author of an anti-cellphone bill in California told a Los Angeles Times reporter that passage of the legislation in New York improved the prospects for doing something about the problem in his own state. He expressed that opinion in a conversation on his cellphone headset - while driving to work.

JWR contributor Alan Ehrenhalt is executive editor of Governing magazine and the author of "Democracy in the Mirror: Politics, Reform, and Reality in Grassroots America" and "The Lost City: The Forgotten Virtues of Community in America." Comment by clicking here.

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06/28/01: Why we don't have it made in the shade
06/20/01: Why do we psychologize everything?


© 2001, Alan Ehrenhalt. Picture courtesy of Governing magazine