Late one night, I was procrastinating by flipping back and forth between Facebook, iTunes, and a series of summer job and internship descriptions. Suddenly, I noticed a few words repeated in the many lists of required intern skills: “an ability to multitask.”
This stopped me. Multitasking is what I do when I don’t have to be particularly productive. I thought this was old news. Principals and deans have told me that multitasking gets in the way of efficiency.
Multitasking, for those who want to get tasks done, is counterproductive and should not be valued. To understand a mess of sensory and intellectual input, one must streamline it, shaping it into one cohesive picture. The skill here is to weave seemingly disparate threads into one — not to jump from one to another while keeping them apart. Our information-overload demands a unidirectional focus, not a scattershot one.
Many have lost the ability to do anything but multitask. The root of this problem among college students is the sad phenomenon of in-class laptop.
If you want to use a laptop to take notes, that’s fine. I don’t understand it — why carry around a huge metal box when you can just slip a pen into your pocket? — but it’s a matter of taste. But let’s get real: the number of people who use their laptops as glorified electronic notebooks, and nothing else, is small.
Instead, students send e-mails, instant message, look at Facebook photo albums, shop for clothes, read the New York Times and compulsively Wikipedia every name or word the professor says.
Now imagine this: I sit down in a lecture. The professor starts talking. All of a sudden, I start pulling out letters, a phone, a book of old pictures, catalogues, a newspaper and a 32-volume encyclopedia. I flip between volume G of my Britannica and the Arts section of the Times between each of the professor’s sentences. I hate to be a killjoy, but I think this might seem sort of disruptive, and one might question how much of the lecture I was really absorbing.
But the advantage of Wikipedia over Britannica is precisely that it isn’t 32,642 pages long, you might argue. Convenient, eh? Actually, it makes very little difference. The internet contains far more pages’ worth of information, and far more distraction.
Nor is a laptop any more discreet. It may come as a surprise, but get this: There are people sitting behind you and next to you, and they can see everything on your screen. Who knew? If you’re watching a video of a baby monkey riding on a pig — which is by all means a good thing to do on your own time — so are about five other people. It’s even worse in a seminar, when the physical barrier your screen erects prohibits you from engaging in conversation.
Most lectures are really worth listening to, with full attention — especially considering how much we pay for them. And for those that aren’t, there are two old-fashioned solutions. First, you can go to sleep. Risky. Second, you can sit in the back and tactfully hide your newspaper behind the person in front of you. I get nasty looks when I do this, even if the laptop-users beside me are paying far less attention.
The advantage of both these technique is that they send a message: This lecture is really abysmal, so I’m not going to honor it with my full attention. It should be used only in the most extreme circumstances, but it’s a form of communication between students and, perhaps, the professor. It’s an important way of gauging opinion and making a statement.
It’s high time we stop valuing the ability to multitask. In our real, social interactions, we frown on multitasking. My school didn’t give out grades until 7th grade; instead, my lower school report cards consisted of checks and pluses for various categories, one of which was the “ability to stay on task.” Had I interrupted my math problems to draw a picture or write a story, I would have gotten a bad mark, even if I ended up with good results. If a friend is unable to converse without changing the topic every couple of minutes — or checking their cell phone — we find someone else to talk to.
If the internet is to play an important role in the world, we ought to approach it in the same way that we handle other interactions. We should not cultivate or even condone the inability to stay on task just because it is hidden behind a computer screen. We certainly should not label a deficiency a skill.
Julia Fisher is a sophomore in Berkeley College.