Attack of the Killer Gadgets
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?
More Reasons to Multitask
Sometimes multitasking can make us more productive. Knight says that technology complements her "less-than-awesome" memory and a natural "compulsion to multitask." "Having all the devices has actually enabled me to be that way and still be productive," she says.
And sometimes we multitask just for fun. Armando Rodriguez, a PCWorld intern and recent graduate of San Francisco State University, says that he once ran a giant clutch of gizmos at one time because he was bored.
"I sat in bed surrounded by four televisions with three laptops each running a different operating system while trying to get a Nintendo Wii emulator to work," Rodriguez says. "I had a PlayStation 3, an Xbox 360, and a Wii console (one per TV) all running in the background as I fiddled with the emulator settings. I used an iPod Touch as my primary Internet source since the three laptops were each being used toward building the emulator. Simultaneously, I was working on a hacked Nintendo DS and PSP. Basically I was sitting in the middle of a giant mess of electronics."
In order to work uninterrupted, Kim sometimes takes his mobile office to the serenity of a low-key neighborhood café. Many of its wooden tabletops are covered with other patrons' laptops. "I see other people doing the same thing, and I think they're obnoxious," Kim says, adding that he suspects that his device multitasking isn't terribly productive.
"There's a cognitive penalty from multitasking, particularly when you spread it among multiple screens and gadgets," says Carr. The need to clear your working memory of your first task before switching effectively to the next saps productivity.
The New York Times' Richter cited University of California, Irvine research that showed that people interrupted by e-mail reported significantly increased stress compared with those left to focus. And increased stress leads to short-term memory loss.
"Even I have to admit, it's getting weird," says Kim. Gadget multitasking is affecting his sleep, his attention span, and even his relationship. He's no longer allowed to bring his devices, particularly his iPad, to bed with him.
A moment of self-awareness occurred during a recent trip to Lake Tahoe, where ten men convened for a friend's bachelor party. To the rented mountain cabin, they brought phones, laptops, an Xbox game console for playing Rockband, Rockband accessories, and the iPad.
"We were playing Scrabble on the iPad and iPhone," says Kim. The iPad displayed the Scrabble board, while each player's iPod or iPhone displayed the contents of his tile rack. Players then "threw" Scrabble tiles from the iPhone onto the iPad.
Members of the party managed to go out more than they stayed in, but downtime equaled tech time.
"It's not just me," says Kim. "Everyone can't leave the house without these devices."
In an interview with National Public Radio, Richtel explained the neuroscience behind our need to surround ourselves with electronics. Cell phone rings and e-mail alerts cause little bursts of adrenaline that activate primitive impulses in the brain. Our desire to constantly check for information is analogous to the primordial need to check for food. And the more accustomed we get to theses adrenaline rushes, the more we notice their absence. "You feel bored," Richtel said in the interview.
Both Kim and Knight have experienced this feeling.
"I don't sit around waiting for my landline to ring," says Knight.
Using Gadgets for Fun Is Different
The toll that technology multitasking takes on your work life does not necessarily apply to entertainment, where productivity is not the primary goal. When watching reality TV, Kim sometimes use his iPhone to look up something, like a medical illness, that he doesn't recognize.
"I'm using my iPhone as a device to get extra content out of a TV show," says Kim.
Still, spending a relatively short time focusing on any one activity while multitasking can lower your enjoyment of the whole experience. Carr says that engaging in a single activity, like reading a book, for a sustained period of time can increase your pleasure from and emotional attachment to the activity.
In this way, e-books might be the perfect gadgets for technophiles. Carr says that the Amazon Kindle, which retains the fundamental characteristics of the printed page, encourages deep attention to story. And while feature creep could destroy this blissful single-use experience, the third-generation Kindle, which started shipping to customers in late August, is mostly sticking to its predecessors' one-trick mission.
"I actually like the Kindle because I can only read books," says Kim, who doesn't use its other features such as Wi-Fi and social networking. (View a slideshow comparison between the second- and third-generation Kindles.)
Knight experiences deep satisfaction when she DJs, an activity that requires using several pieces of audio hardware at the same time. But in that case, the singular experience of playing music is more pleasurable than juggling the multiple endeavors of Facebook and texting.
"I'm way more relaxed and into my gear when I'm playing music on it," says Knight. "I can't think of anything else that I'd rather be doing at that moment."
Carr, Kim, and Knight all see value in streamlining device use.
"I'm trying to use my gadgets more narrowly for what they're good for," says Carr, who chooses to use a cell phone over a smartphone. "I am convinced that even though we really want to be interrupted, it does cut off some of our reflective, contemplative ways of thinking."
Carr recommends reading a printed book, having a long conversation with someone (without checking your smartphone), watching a complex movie, or simply sitting and quietly thinking as a counterbalance to device frenzy.
And whereas Kim relaxes with his Kindle, he finds himself subjected to information overload with multifeatured devices like the iPad, which tempt him to use features just because they are there.
Knight narrows her use of each device for the very practical reason that doing so enables her to maximize the memory of each device; but when asked about the next technology product she'll buy, she responds, "Any machine that does as many things as possible--that's what I want."
Narasu Rebbapragada is a San Francisco-based writer who streams Netflix through the Roku while working on her MacBook laptop and waiting for her iPhone to buzz. You can find her at blog.narasu.com and @serenityblog.
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