As a young kid, back when I had a pre-Internet attention span and actually enjoyed reading words of ink printed on paper, I went through a phase of reading ‘A Boy and His Dog’-genre stories. Which kind of made sense, since I was a boy, and I had a dog.
One story in particular that sticks with me to this day is “Where the Red Fern Grows”. A key plot point in the story revolved around an odd yet apparently true fact about raccoons: To trap a raccoon (the kid in the story hunted raccoons, which I did not…and, in retrospect, yuk) you drill a hole in a log, drop in a shiny object like a ball bearing or a quarter, and then pound in a serious of nails around the circumference of the hole in the log, all pointing inwards, at an angle, towards the Shiny Thing.
Apparently the raccoon will instinctively reach in in the hole for the Shiny Thing, which is trapped by the ring of nails, and will not let go for anything, not even when it would be in his striped butt’s best interest to do so (like, say, when a boy and his dog and his rifle are fast approaching).
I often think of that poor raccoon, trapped by hard-wired instincts to death-grasp his Shiny Thing, when I find myself fiddling with my PDA to compulsively, and, frankly, needlessly, check my e-mail for the 5th time during a 15 minute busride. We share common ancestors: along with opposable thumbs and a tendency to eat garbage, might not the human species also have inherited the same shiny-thing-grasping genetic quirk as our raccoon cousins, too?
I also thought of that poor raccoon when I heard about the recent commuter train accident in California: If only the conductor had been able to overcome his hard-wired instincts to constantly fiddle with his Shiny Thing, even when it was in his (and others’) best interest not to do so (like, say, when a freight train was fast approaching).
I mention all this this because, as I prepare myself to dive into the MCDM program with wild abandon, and begin feeding my currently-gaunt multitask-addiction-monkey with plenty of Tweeting and Facebooking and blog-posting and generally getting up to speed on the status quo of the Digital Revolution and Social Networking, I find myself very aware of the very real risk of also setting myself up for a serious case of eventual Multitask Overload, in the process.
Mulitask Overload is not an abstract concept to me. A few years ago, after almost 20 years of freelancing (a career choice which provides great incentives to constantly multitask beyond the capacity of the average human machine…to do otherwise is to risk a life of forever cycling through only the lowest realms of Maslow’s Needs Hierarchy) my many years of massively-over-multitasking finally caught up with me. And once it finally did, I felt like I’d been shot from a cannon, at point blank range, into a cyclone fence. It then took me a very long time to finally re-congeal, my near-terminal case of Multitask Burnout setting me forth on an embarrassingly cliché path of mid-life introspection and course correction (which eventually lead me to the MCDM program so, hey, Near Terminal Multitask Burnout can have its upsides, too.)
So, naturally, I’m a little cautious. And not just for myself.
As I look around in class at my MCDM Comrades, and see them nimbly monitoring multiple Twitter feeds while web surfing and text messaging and whatever the heck else they’re doing mid-lecture, I honestly (if a tad paternalistically…my bad) worry about the eventual toll that all this multitasking might take on my compatriates. Which, in turn, makes me wonder about the long-term toll that all this multitasking might one day take on society as a whole, as well.
Because technology will always be able to outpace us mere mortals, especially if Moore’s Law remains in force, it seems inevitable to me that eventually there will be, by necessity, a movement to remind us all to regularly unplug for a bit, to practice releasing our collective death grasp on our Shiny Things from time to time, and to remember to live fully in Meatspace, if only for fleeting moments at a time.
Just as successful freelancers learn to impose a grid upon the blank slate that otherwise is their schedule (with things like office hours and, say, night school), I think that, too, more and more of us will eventually recognize the need to impose a bit of order on on the blank slate that is our ever-present opportunity to digitally multitask. I, for one, have recently been trying to limit my online access to the hours of 7 a.m. – 7 p.m., with a break from 12 noon – 1:30 (a goal I have yet to meet, of course, but the exercise has at least made me a little more conscious of my time spent meandering about in cyberspace). I’ve also been making a point of (gasp) leaving the house for extended periods without my (shiny) P.D.A., which has been refreshing. But it has also been a bit more difficult adjusting to those brief periods of time unplugged than I care to admit.
Does anyone else worry about Multitask Burnout, as well? If so, what steps do you take to avoid it?
I take these feeble stabs at imposing a bit of self-discipline over my web usage in hopes of exercising that ‘muscle,’ so that when my moment of truth comes, as it surely will, I’m able to overcome my hard-wired instincts, and release my death-grasp upon my Shiny Thing when it would be in the best interest of myself (and/or others) to do so.
My hope, too, is that each of my MCDM Comrades are able to joyfully work and play and socialize with their various Shiny Things without consequence, and enthusiastically embrace all the many positive aspects of digitally enabled multitasking, while avoiding ever experiencing Near Terminal Multitasking Burnout first-hand.
But if you do eventually multitask yourself into that special ring of hell, just post a Tweet, and we can comisserate.
Not only would I be happy to help…but it would also give me a great excuse to fiddle with my Shiny Thing.