Is Multi-Tasking Dumbing Us Down?

Text and Tweet Generation

I recently watched the 2010 documentary from Frontline: Digital Nation. This film addressed the issues on how digital media affects and is changing our daily lives.  The education aspect of this movie really spoke to informal observations I’ve made on my job and within my neighborhood. Mentally I compared the limited multi-tasking of the 1960s and 70s with Millennials.

Truly there is a digital divide between children of the hippie/disco era with those born into the Information Age. We Flower Children are immigrants to the digital world as opposed to the Millennials who are natives. It took me six weeks to learn how to use my cell phone properly whereas it took my teenage niece six minutes. Yes I may the voice of life experience and this does give me a larger far ranging mental map as opposed to an adolescent but larger map = more area to navigate and I’m constantly trying to relate my 8-track mind to an IPod world. My niece has no such challenges as she’s never seen an 8-track stereo, turn table, black & white TV, transistor radio or a rotary dial phone, except maybe in a museum. Her starting point is the 1990s, mine the 1960s.

Then like the narrator in the film I began to wonder does my Millennial born niece really have the advantage when it comes to learning or adapting to new technologies. On the surface it seems so however taking a closer look let’s discuss attention spans in terms of “multi-tasking”.  Now we all multi-task during our daily lives, this ability starts from youth.  I can remember doing my homework or studying as a kid while WABC or WBLS was blasting from my radio.  My Dad could not understand how I could be absorbing any facts or figures from my textbooks, but I did.  It was easy for me and I did it all during junior high, high school and much later on college.

However while writing twenty-five page research papers as an English major in college once again I found myself multi-tasking but not in the same manner as a teenager or 20 something.  I’d have my books, scholarly papers and notes spread out all over my desk and bed, one window on the computer opened to MS Word and the other to the web so I could perform more research all the while music blasting from the radio, but once the phone rang I could no further divide my attention than I could clone myself. Everything came to a halt while I took that phone call. The TV was the ultimate diversion. I might have put it on for background noise or chatter but don’t let an interesting story or movies come on.  Any good movie or TV show consumed all my attention and I either turned the TV off or stopped writing my paper.

As pointed out in the documentary students the director interviewed often performed several tasks while writing essays resulting in papers that were fragmented and disjointed. Students were texting, Googling, IM’ing, talking on the cell phone and using the Internet all while doing homework or writing papers.  Thus no cohesion of thoughts in their writing. Why? None of their multi-tasking was related to the mission at hand which was to compose an essay for class.

The English professors in the movie complained that students wrote in “bursts” or paragraphs of unrelated ideas.  There was no connection from one paragraph in their paper to the next.  Thus these students who attended the most prestigious universities in the country lacked the ability to follow-through and construct a unified theme.

All of the above technologies I mentioned have their place within Education and can be used to further or enhance learning, however students need to understand digital media is just a tool or a resource not a staple of scholarship.

Information overload is not just a buzzword; it’s a very real hindrance to productive communication and the ability to construct logical arguments. There only so much brain bifurcation that can be deemed useful in daily life and even on high tech jobs, sooner or later linear thought is required to make sense out of the many pathways and decisions that confront us on a daily basis.

All people young and old young people need to know how to analyze and interpret the information presented to them through the media, whatever that media maybe. Too many of us are being sucked into modern “sound bite culture” and letting themselves be convinced by slick, knee-jerk summaries rather than well-reasoned arguments.

Unfortunately have been sucked into what constitutes the “sound bite” generation. Texts, Tweets and Email seem to rule their world. Critical thinking is no longer taught in schools nor is it passed down from previous generations. I had to read. Plus coming of age during the 60s and late 70s with the Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, Watergate and other social issues of the day we really learned to not only see but to appreciate the two sides of the coin.

Now most people young and old seem to buy into the latest buzzwords or whatever the “pundits” or TV Talking Heads want us to believe. Everything seems to be taken out of context with little regard to history and the fact that yes history does repeat itself in many ways, just the characters seem to change.  For example the election of President Barack Obama did not usher in a post-racial period. If anything there is more of a backlash of increasing hate towards many minorities with Blacks bearing the brunt of it.

For me the Tea Partiers are only modern day sophisticated “Ku Klux Klan”. They exchanged the white robes for business suits. But they still spout the same rhetoric as the Klan disguised in a cloak of “Patriotism”. There is nothing grassroots or average American about them. I believe the NY Times did a research article not too long ago with the findings that most Tea Party members are upper middle class or extremely well to do. They constitute the very rich. The economic fall is not affecting them as they have the resources to fund their extremist beliefs and spread those beliefs throughout various media channels.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a total technology Luddite.  I support Kindles, desktops, laptops, I-Phones, I-Pads and Blackberries in fact if any reader out there wishes to drop one or more of these items in my Christmas stocking I give you hearty thanks. It’ll help me with future research articles.

However most of my friends are in their late 40s, 50s and approaching 60. Our generation uses texting and email to arrange face to face meetings.  We’re Face Time not Facebook.  For those of us born during the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson era digital technology will remain a tool not a lifeline.

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Aunt Thelma me Aunt Helen 1977
Aunt Thelma, yours truly, Aunt Helen HS Graduation 1977

4 thoughts on “Is Multi-Tasking Dumbing Us Down?

    1. Thanks. I wrote this piece a while back but I think that it still applies. In many ways I’m glad to be a Baby Boomer. All these technologies didn’t exist so we had to focus and deal with people face to face.

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