On multitasking

Plug time. Those of you who don’t subscribe to the Mars Hill Audio Journal really ought to. And if you do not, you should at least download and listen to Volume 94. It’s outstanding even by the high standards of MHAJ.

A footnote or two from the interviews with Maggie Jackson: First, a question. Is “multitasking” an attempt (in many cases unconscious) to escape our embodied finitude, particularly the God-ordained limitations of time and space? We were made to do only so much at once, to bear only so many orientations at once, and our time/space limitations provide kindly boundaries against “disorientation” (Ken Myers’ word). Nowadays, however, we are trying to do so much so fast, enabled by the operation of multiple machines simultaneously, that one must ask if we are taking our God-created limitations seriously. We no longer concentrate on one thing, then the next, then the next; our minds and lives are crowded with a barrage of simultaneous stimuli, to any one of which we are incapable of giving isolated and sustained attention.

Now let me put this more positively. A well-cultivated life is one in which one pays attention to things. To this book one is reading (one cannot absorb a book’s richness while distracted). To this person one is talking to (meaningful relating does not occur beyond a certain speed). To this God one is praying to. To this sunset one has been privileged to view. To this meal at this table in the presence of these loved ones. To pay attention, I must inhabit a particular moment in a particular space. I must be all there, must draw near, must behold. I must give up omnipresence so as to be somewhere in particular, and to open myself to the thing at hand.

The problem with this, says Jackson, is that it is, well, boring. Real life occurs in real time – and real time is slow. Not everything happens at once. It’s not an omni-connected experience like the evening news (or the average surf on the Internet). I have to deal with this one conversation and make something of it. I have to keep reading this until I understand it. I have to engage with this thing until it begins to rub me; and when that happens, I desperately want to go check my email. We naturally love novelty, especially when we are young, and real life in real time offers only so much novelty. What it offers instead is rhythm, participation in rituals and habits (and other such predictables) that – for those truly engaged – become not old and wearisome but ever richer and deeper and fuller. It’s much more fun (perhaps) to be ever rushing on to the next thing, or to try to cram it all into one bloated moment. How many people can I “IM” at once? Quite a few, but how did we come to a place where we think of this as communication? It’s sitting at a command center (Mark Bauerlein’s metaphor), playing god. The moment a “conversation” gets old, I can just shut it down and move on to the next. Thank God real life doesn’t work that way . . . if we can figure out how to get back to the real thing.

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