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June 7, 2010

on multitasking and what's really good in life

I am sympathetic to Kord Campbell, the addicted multitasker who is profiled in today's long New York Times article entitled "Your Brain on Computers: Hooked on Gadgets, and Paying a Mental Price." He and I are exactly the same age, we have similar family structures, and I, like Campbell, acknowledge an Internet addiction. A little dose of dopamine quite noticeably surges in my brain whenever I see a positive item of economic news, a favorable poll, or evidence that someone has read something of mine.

The research on multitasking predictably focuses on its consequences: What does the behavior cause? The scientific jury is out, but there are troubling suggestive findings regarding the impact on cognitive abilities and stress. This research is interesting but will never be adequate, because studying consequences begs the one really important question. So what if multitasking raises stress, and stress shortens life? So what if multitasking rewires the brain so that we can no longer concentrate on a novel or our kids' homework? The primary question is: What should we do with our lives? If everything is just a means to something else, there is no basis to say that it matters how long we live or what we do with our time.

Obviously, I have no grounds to tell anyone else what is important in life. For myself, three ways of being loom large: Caring for other people and being cared for in return; becoming absorbed in another person's world through fiction, film, or nonfiction prose; and immersing oneself in some creative activity. The last is what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi calls "flow," and I like this operational definition: when you're in "flow," you are so absorbed you forget to eat lunch.

None of these ways of being is fully compatible with multitasking. You might be checking email 37 times/hour (the national average) in order to care for others, but that isn't likely. Certainly, you are not immersed in another person's world or in a creative activity.

I have no methodology for selecting the three most intrinsically valuable activities. I did not derive them from a deeper or broader principle, although that might be possible. They could easily be mere prejudices or subjective preferences on my part. Still, the fact that I cannot tell you what to admire and value does not mean that there is no right answer to that question. And even if we disagree about which ways of being are most intrinsically valuable, I think we can agree that checking your email 37 times an hour isn't one of them.

(It disturbs me that I literally checked my email several times while I composed this blog post.)

June 7, 2010 8:31 AM | category: none



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