Jewish World Review Dec. 26, 2002 / 21 Teves, 5763

Deborah Mathis

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Consumer Reports

We've given overwork a makeover and called it "multitasking" | In the classic "Feminine Mystique," Betty Friedan described the unhappy state of many careerless women bound to hearth and home as a problem "that has no name." It was a catchy way of defining that undefinable discomfort and it helped propel the book and its author to legend.

Good thing she wrote it when she did. Had Friedan attempted her sociological study now, she would have to find a name for the condition, pure and simple. It's how things are done these days: find it, give examples of it and name it.

This, after all, is the age of "closure" - a term yanked from the doldrums and put to work as an invader of the public consciousness. A concept rendered indispensable by dint of repetition and overuse, even misuse. We no longer "get over it" or "learn to live with it;" we "get closure."

Here in the New World - the one originally colonized by European explorers and now under occupation by cyber capitalists, celebrity-mongers, prison and military industrialists and political Huns - about the only thing we haven't named is our need to name everything. Naming our feelings and experiences is our way of validating them and even, institutionalizing them. Of course, once something becomes an institution, it must be accommodated and assuaged.

Take one of the latest new names for something we do: multitasking.

It's a fancy way of describing what folks have been doing since time immemorial - namely, working too much. I'm sure the hunter-gatherers would have qualified as multitaskers, what with all that tool-making and stalking and pouncing and killing, then dragging and dressing out and carving and cooking, all the while keeping an eye out for creatures who, given the chance, would do the same to them.

Or what about pioneer women with the cooking and spinning and weaving and sewing and child-birthing and planting and water-boiling and soap-making?

Or George Washington Carver and Thomas Alva Edison, who churned out enough inventions for 10 geniuses?

I wonder if they ever craved affirmation that they were doing something really special, as opposed to doing what they needed or wanted to do?

If they could return to us, they would see, in the commercial, a woman popping a colorful container in the microwave while she doing a zillion other things. Seconds later, voila, she's got soup - her own, private, made-for-one, grab-and-go, portable nourishment. The message is that she doesn't have time to monkey with a can opener and a pot on top of the stove since that could take a whole six or seven minutes. She most certainly doesn't have the time to sit down at the table and eat.

Is this ridiculous or regrettable? Is it unfortunate? Used to be, but not anymore. The woman with the road cup is not overloaded; she's not trying to do too much; she's not harried and hassled. It is not enough that she may be a "Baby Boomer" or a "Gen X-er," a "Soccer Mom" or a "Glass Ceiling Sister." How she is known, for purposes of marketing and exploitation, is as a "multitasker" and that has made all the difference. Now that her circumstance has a name, it can be catered to, it can be turned into a market. Just like the quickie soup, goods and services for the multitasker appear in a flash.

I suppose we should be grateful for the modern conveniences that save time and effort so that we can devote them to other things that still beg the shortcut.

But if the idea is to free us up for more leisurely or meaningful things, like the sublime exercise of doing nothing, it isn't working. If the idea is that quick fixes will afford us more quality time for quality pursuits, it isn't working. If the idea is that we will feel less burdened if we can drink our soup in the car on the way to the recital, the meeting, the class, the bank, etc., it isn't working.

We are what's working. Too much. Too long. Too hard. Too far from home. Call it "multitasking" if you will, but this is no cute, new age phenomenon. Overloading is as old as the hills.

Here's an idea for some marketing team: Forget the soup. Plant the idea that we need less to do with our time. Show us how to slow down, to do one thing at a time and perhaps do it better. Name it if you must.

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12/23/02: The bad guys have underestimated our adaptability


© 2002, TMS