Thursday, June 5, 2008

Hyperconnected multitasking nonsense

The world, we are told, is changing. I think not; the only thing that's changing is a greater willingness to accept that which should be judged unacceptable.

We hear that gone are the days when people just beginning their careers could be tasked with something that they would then be finished and turned into a part of a larger whole. These Millennials, quoth fonts of wisdom to whom we look for guidance on management of the generations in the workplace, won't stand for that. The “typical” Millenial is smart and creative; they don't have time for schedules. They don't want to deal with hierarchies; they want to talk all the time to anyone they think necessary at any level of their organization. They're not happy doing their work with people in their own workplace; their workplace is a CIDR block that's just a few hops away from the rest of the world. There's no inside and outside anymore. It's just online and offline—which is to say, dead. It's all about keeping your Facebook profile updated and a blog post every hour. Around the clock. Unaffected by the artificial constraints of The System, this new generation is going to save humanity. They understand the world now. The old people just don't get it.

This is a complete load of tripe. The only thing that we need to add to this story to see where it winds up are the lines that reflect the sentiment, as expressed in an earlier age. Tune in and drop out, man. Don't trust anyone over thirty! The bad news for the baby boomers who espoused this nonsense is that not only did they fail to change the fundamentals of how the world works but they're going to manage to bankrupt social security in the process, taking more out of society than they put into it.

Despite the prognostication of staffing consultants and other such experts, the simple fact is that I'm not going to change the way that my business fundamentally operates so that my employees can keep their MySpace pages fresh with all of the latest gossip from their social circles. We're not going to assume that there's no longer a difference between public and private, or that there's a difference between being engaged at work and elsewhere.

“But the kids today know how to multitask!” is the retort that I hear building. Yes, the kids today know how to flip quickly from one application to the next, how to carry on five conversations of nonsense at once, and how to be completely surrounded by communication technology. The “kids today” know how to do everything but focus their attention and to think things through. This isn't something that we should encourage. We should not marvel at this. I believe that we should instead be taking a hard look at the kinds of expectations that people beginning their careers have and make sure that we're not continuing to coddle them as their careers get going just as we have during their entire childhood, when we were giving them trophies just for showing up.

As it turns out, science is demonstrating how multitasking dumbs us down. This is, in my opinion, big news—even if it is badly underreported.

The reason why this is so important is that we as developers and purveyors of technology need not to forget that as a society, we're going to have to remain competitive. That's going to require skills greater than being able to respond the most quickly to a pop-up on our screen. Ultimately, if we lose the ability to think things through and to see the likely conclusions before we even begin to undertake major endeavors, we're pretty well doomed. This is, sadly, something that I think that is often overlooked in the schools that think about computing as the work of either an engineer or a less sophisticated technician. Contemplative inquiry is the sort of thing that one studies only in liberal arts programs. Nevertheless, I believe that we have a responsibility to demonstrate reasonable use of the technology, recognizing that there's a time to be connected and a time to be focused. There's a time to take advantage of the ability to harness the last generation's supercomputing power in the palms of our hands and there's a time to think, to process all of the information that has been thrown our way, to sort it, and to make sense not just of the content, but the context in which it all works together.

In my opinion, the real trick is to ensure that we always understand why we're doing things. This contrasts sharply with the always-on and hyperconnected “power users” of social networking technology. I have observed that these do not drive the technology: the technology drives them. A buzz or a beep makes them jump. Focus can be lost such that the person standing in front of them is tuned out in favor of a message that was asynchronous in nature and probably had nothing to do with the purpose for which someone is paying them. By knowing our objectives always, we can be sure that the technology is helping us to do what it is that we choose to do, to achieve the ends that we strive to reach.

It's time for us to end the charade. The only change that's taking place in the world is the same one that has always been in force: the complacent fall to those willing to push themselves to do better and to achieve their objectives.

It's not the technology that matters: it's what we make of it.



Blogger dave225 said...

I'm not sure if you're not confusing competitiveness in business with marketing to popular culture. I agree that the spoils go to those who can focus on objectives. But if your objective is to sell product to people with short attention spans, you've got to acknowledge their way of thinking.

SO maybe multitasked and hyperconnected isn't the way to conduct business - but it's the business we're in.

June 6, 2008 at 4:20 PM  

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