Multitasking Meltdown – New York Times Style

Posted by Irresponsibility

I used to get my blogging kicks picking apart the idiocies of Grazia et al but the New York Times is just as reliable a source of brain-boggling inanity and general disrespect for its readership as the tattiest of the cheap weeklies.

Example: Steven Johnson’s insufferably supercilious, self-serving ‘Unboxed’ column critiquing Nicholas Carr’s new book The Shallows. Johnson has a book coming out too and what better way to toot his own horn than by taking cheap shots at a rival?

The debate is whether the: “compulsive skimming, linking and multitasking of our screen reading is undermining the deep, immersive focus that has defined book culture for centuries”. Carr says it is, Johnson says it isn’t. Fine. But Johnson’s smug tone and intellectual dishonesty inadvertently argue Carr’s case.

Johnson, for all his insistence that multitasking doesn’t inhibit deeper thinking, writes with apparent confidence that no one is going to read his babble too closely. Otherwise he wouldn’t dare glibly misrepresent the scope of scientific study, saying: “Scientists take a handful of test subjects out of their offices and make them watch colored squares dance on a screen in a lab somewhere. Then they determine that multitasking makes you slightly less able to focus”.

In fact, the study to which he alludes — covered at length in an earlier NYT feature — did a lot more than make test subjects “watch coloured squares.” Among other things, it found:

multitaskers took longer than non-multitaskers to switch among tasks, like differentiating vowels from consonants and then odd from even numbers. The multitaskers were shown to be less efficient at juggling problems.

Johnson careens merrily along in this vein, dismissing Carr’s arguments with a series of non sequiturs:

“Thanks to e-mail, Twitter and the blogosphere, I regularly exchange information with hundreds of people in a single day”.
That’s lovely, but it in no way addresses — much less contradicts — Carr’s point about the distracting nature of screen-mediated reading.

“The intellectual tools for assessing the media, once the province of academics and professional critics, are now far more accessible to the masses.”
It isn’t entirely clear what he means by “intellectual tools” — blogs? The comments section of online news stories? In any case, having ‘intellectual tools’ at the disposal of the masses in no way proves they are being used well, or used at all. Couch potatoes can buy protein shakes and barbells, but that doesn’t make them Olympic athletes.

“We are reading more text, writing far more often, than we were in the heyday of television.”
Discount Twitter, Facebook updates and magazine covers while standing in supermarket queues and I’m guessing we’re about even.

“It’s no accident that most of the great scientific and technological innovation over the last millennium has taken place in crowded, distracting urban centers.”
No kidding. That’s where the educational institutions were, and where the literates and the leisured classes congregated. They stood a better chance of making scientific and technological discoveries than did peasant farmers. The unique relationship between urban centres and creativity has to do with economics, not with some (imaginary) causal relationship between distraction and innovation.

“The speed with which we can follow the trail of an idea, or discover new perspectives on a problem, has increased by several orders of magnitude”.
Granted. Our brains are big sponges, lo, they can hold a lot of water! But what is the value of merely having information? We can follow all the trails we like but ultimately, in order to act, we need a rationale, a raison d’etre, a guiding principle. Nothing in Johnson’s beloved stream of information will help us determine what do do with it. Data is meaningless without the capacity to process it.

“To the extent that [Carr’s] argument is a reminder to all of us to step away from the screen sometimes, and think in a more sedate environment, it’s a valuable contribution.”
Condescension: the last resort of a critic who has nothing to say.

Johnson signs off with: “We are marginally less focused, and exponentially more connected. That’s a bargain all of us should be happy to make.”

At which point, I wish I were reading a book and not a laptop, because then I could throw it across the room without doing any lasting damage. For all the disrespect he shows to literary culture, Johnson apparently still feels his authorial bona fides give him licence to demand his audience submissively embrace his conclusions. Sorry, but no. If he wants a careful reader’s respect he needs to do more than churn out specious nonsense.

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