In a widely cited and talked about study from last year Stanford University researchers found that “media multitaskers pay a mental price” for their ability to consume so much media concurrently (the Kaiser Family Foundation said that kids between 8 and 18 “manage to pack a total of 10 hours and 45 minutes worth of media content into…7½ hours”). This is generally seen as a negative, as best exemplified by the case of driving while talking on the phone and the potentially disastrous consequences for such divided attention.
However I’m interested in the potential upside of our increasingly fractured and non-structured engagement with media. I don’t think anyone would argue that the incidence of media multitasking has decreased since the 90’s and so I’ve been reading Sherry Turkle’s 1997 book ‘Life on the Screen’ with increasing interest for it’s relevance to this very topic.
Turkle’s thesis is that “technology [specifically computation] is bringing a set of ideas associated with postmodernism” to its users. One anecdote that Turkle uses to illustrate her point is the story of a student in the MIT computer lab who has the following to say about his simultaneous connection to several MUD’s (this was ’97 after all),
I split my mind. I’m getting better at it. I can see myself as being two or three or more. And I just turn on one part of my mind and then another when I go from window to window. I’m in some kind of argument in one window and trying to come on to a girl in a MUD in another, and another window might be running a spreadsheet program or some other technical thing for school… RL is just one more window, and it’s not usually my best one.
The aforementioned Stanford study would seem to say that the result of such multitasking is “a big mental price” and that they become “suckers for irrelevancy…everything distracts them.” Unfortunately, the study doesn’t seem to test for whether these distractible media users are more enlightened and open to postmodern ambiguity. Obviously, I’m biased in my opinion that adopting a postmodern perspective is inherently a good thing, but the researchers said, “We kept looking for what they’re better at, and we didn’t find it” – perhaps they were looking for the wrong thing entirely?