In this age of absurd words, maybe I shouldn’t be so bothered by the term “multitasking.” I could save my pique for “incentivize” or “proactive.” I could taketh arms against “guesstimate,” “ginormous,” or “evilness.”
Those other words, however, arise when a speaker tries—badly, but tries—to fill a need. They may be cute or silly or strange or redundant, but they’re the wrong word for something called for. What bothers me about “multitasking” is not that it’s constructed like legos or that it’s overused or grandiose or jargon-y, but that it’s unnecessary, a startling mastery of the ubiquitous. In the modern world, we’re always multitasking. It’s difficult to imagine not juggling jobs or not being enmeshed in more than one thing at a time. We can’t not multitask.
Oh, I know people mean something more extreme. I once asked a student to describe himself composing his essays, and he said he wrote papers on his laptop (alternating his Microsoft Word window and a Facebook window) while listening to his ipod, watching his television on mute, texting friends on his iphone and—when he got stuck—pausing to play a new game he’d downloaded or to watch a YouTube video. His papers, which sometimes seemed to be written by a drunken polo team from the asylum, suddenly jelled for me.
People praise multitasking, and I get the idea it’s a universally good thing. I’m supposed to be impressed by anyone who splits his or her attention seventeen ways and accomplishes anything. I am impressed actually, but mostly that fractional attention can produce a result that isn’t fractured. I’d be equally awed, however, if someone wrote with both hands and both feet, even if he just wrote “gerkin” four times. That anything unconfused comes of confusion is impressive.
But maybe the pendulum should swing the other way. Perhaps the quaint monotasker deserves some attention. Think of the monotasker bent over his workbench, standing before his easel, pounding away at a typewriter, or pausing chisel in hand. Think of an athlete so absorbed in a game his or her body seems the outward emblem of control or the dancer who breathes to internalized music or an actor so concentrated by rehearsal he or she could speak with poise and gravity through the apocalypse. In comparison, the multitasker is a gnat and the multitask its thinnest buzz.
Why did we stop celebrating concentration and start applauding distraction instead? When did we decide restlessness is better than focus, and that activity, any activity and especially several activities all at once, beats training ourselves to sit still and think?