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Masters of Multitasking: Is Not Paying Attention Good for Us?

May 28th, 2008 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

In an age saturated by information, our most precious asset is our ability to give--and take away--attention.

For most young people, their attention is very rarely concentrated in one spot for an extended period of time.  We are masters of multi-tasking, a freedom that has been increased exponentially since the creation of the walkman.

There are questions, though, about the effect such multi-tasking will have on us.  And while the occasional 'scientific' study has popped up defending or critiquing multi-tasking, the evidence is far from conclusive.  Not only that, but there is a genuine "problem of the criterion" in even asking the question:  it is not clear in trying to identify the pros and cons of multi-tasking what counts as a benefit or vice.  Steven Johnson's Everything Bad is Good for You is an extended defense of tv, movies, the internet, etc. but it's plausible that all the benefits he identifies could have been gained, and gained more quickly, through a concentrated reading of Shakespeare.

Most people are either worried about this problem or they are not.  Courtney Martin is in the former camp.  For the record, so am I.  And I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to articulate those worries in the forthcoming book from Crossway on all things new media.  For now, though, I highlight Martin, who relays this letter from Josh Waitzkin to students in a former professor's class:

I understand that your minds move quickly and we are all impacted by a fast paced culture, but do you realize the horror of shopping online while Dalton describes…mothers throwing their children into a well to avoid a barrage of bullets? What are you doing? There comes a day when we must become accountable for our own learning process…Take it on. This is your life. What is the point of neurotically skipping along the surface when all the beauty lies below? Please seize the moment and listen deeply to Dalton's final lectures. Close the computers. Stop typing madly and soak in the themes he develops…Learning is an act of creativity, not mind-numbing, tv watching passive receptivity.

Martin comments:

As you might imagine, it caused quite a stir when professor Dalton distributed Waitzkin's letter to the class. The previous semester, the entire college had considered a computer ban in classrooms, but the students and some of their professorial allies argued that it was an infringement on students' rights, and the idea was promptly dropped. (Professor Dalton, an anarchist, says that while the laptop use during his lectures saddens him, he would never ban the students from doing it.)

It is remarkable to think that access to a laptop in the classroom, without which the educational system has survived some 2500 years, is now considered a right by students.  It is tempting to dismiss students with the condescending, "When I was in school..."  Such a strategy can only acknowledge the yawning gap between the generations, rather than solve any problems.  Most students today have no idea what they have lost by the ubiquity of computers in their lives.

I won't tip my hand (yet) as to what I think is lost.  I'd like to hear from you:  what's lost, if anything, in an environment that has multiple media each vying to have us attend to them?
(HT:  Al Mohler)

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.