Attack of the Killer Gadgets

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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."

Twitter bird

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.

Researchers agree.

"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.

The Fallout

Apple iPad
"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."

A Solution

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 and @serenityblog.

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