On many mornings, Ji Kim loads his backpack with three Apple devices--an iPhone, an iPad, and a MacBook Pro--before he taking the bus to his downtown San Francisco office. When giving presentations from his laptop, he uses his iPhone to access data from the Internet so as not to mess with the PowerPoint slides. Sometimes towards the end of the day, he'll carry those same devices to the quiet solitude of a café near his house so he can finish off some work uninterrupted.
When he returns to the San Francisco apartment that he shares with his girlfriend, those devices join an Amazon Kindle e-book reader, a Sony PlayStation 3 game console, an Apple Mac Mini (turned into an entertainment center), and a PC that also live there.
Kim, a 36-year-old product manager who works in high tech and design, is one of a growing number of people who use multiple electronics devices simultaneously. According to 2010 statistics from the Consumer Electronics Association, the average household now hosts 14 distinct consumer electronics products, from TVs to game consoles to laptops to smartphones.
We Twitter while watching TV news to get the latest real-time updates, read a book on an iPad while answering questions on a phone, use different browsers on different laptops to troubleshoot a problem. Both at home and at work--a distinction that has become obsolete for many people--we are taking multitasking to new heights.
Combine the age-old desire for information with the portability and power of today's Internet-based electronics, and you get a situation where technology is fundamentally changing the way we live, work, and think.
"We've always lived with distractions," says Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. "What's different is that we're being bombarded with information that is of interest to us." Carr explains that the Internet's efficacy as a messaging system encourages us to set it up to receive multiple streams of information since we place a lot of value on new information.
In a recent New York Times series called "Your Brain on Computers," journalist Matt Richtel cited research by time-management software company RescueTime finding that computer users visit an average of 40 Websites a day. And according to research conducted by the University of California, San Diego, people consume 12 hours of media a day on average. (In this study, 1 hour spent simultaneously surfing the Internet and watching TV counts as 2 hours of media consumption.) That compares with 5 hours in 1960.
Reasons to Multitask
One reason for multitasking is to solve practical problems like spotty network coverage. Thus, Kim uses his iPhone to connect via 3G when his company's Wi-Fi network drops out and prevents him from accessing the Internet from his laptop.
Another reason to multitask is that office policy may dictate it. Kitte Knight is a customer support rep by day, a DJ by night, and a mother around the clock. She works at home on her couch and coffee table, with her cats and dogs scattered around her. The big technology company that employs her (she asked that it not be named) forbids employees from conducting personal business on its equipment, so she keeps two laptops running at the same time--her own Lenovo N500 and her work-issued Lenovo ThinkPad W500.
When her work machine is processing information, she turns to the other machine to visit Facebook or to check the music running through her little Hercules DJ Console Mk2 mixer. She also keeps her personal BlackBerry nearby so that she can send and receive messages to her daughter, and her office BlackBerry is on hand for business calls.
People also multitask because of the imperfect nature of syncing data between products that have more and more overlapping features. Kim has multiple devices with calendars, address books, and Web browsers, but syncing events, contacts, and bookmarks across them can be difficult. And though data syncing and social bookmarking tools can solve these problems, using them properly requires constant and conscientious attention.
"Having a universal address book is really challenging," Kim says, "It's taking me longer to find stuff now."
In addition, psychological reasons, like peer pressure, may contribute to multitasking. Kim works in a high-tech environment, where having the latest and greatest tech products is a source of pride. When he first got his iPad, he brought it work everyday. "It was an ego thing," he admits. He started leaving the iPad at home when he noticed how heavy his backpack was getting.
The 24/7 office culture encourages tech overuse, too, as coworkers and higher-ups seem to be constantly on e-mail. "It's hard to reduce your own intake because you'll feel like you're damaging your career," says Carr. And in the same vein, Carr notes, having friends who manage their lives through Facebook and Twitter puts pressure on people to behave similarly. "To back away feels like you're isolating yourself socially," he says.
Next: Are You Forbidden to Bring Your iPad or Droid to Bed?