Taking Multitasking to Task: Mark Harris tries to stop gorging on technology
Image Credit: Disney/PixarI’ve decided to go on a diet — but instead of giving up carbs and hiring that scary woman from The Biggest Loser, I’m going to stop gorging on technology
Earlier this year, like a lot of people, I made a resolution to eat less. But with a twist: My resolution is to eat less entertainment. Here’s my new rule: one screen at a time.
Lately, the ways in which you can consume pop culture have been multiplying so rapidly that by the time the alarm clock buzzes, you’re already a 3.0 in a 4.0 world. Press coverage of every technological innovation can sound almost evangelical: We’re always just one handheld device, add-on, or app away from owning the dream gadget that will infinitely broaden our options while somehow streamlining our lives. As a result, I typically find myself watching TV while looking at a viral video on my laptop, trying to get my Netflix account and my cable box to mate with each other so that I can play streaming movies while fiddling with the smartphone I am still trying to persuade to make friends with my home computer, on which I am constantly checking the 127 sites I have bookmarked, plus an RSS feed I recently acquired because I was worried that since I didn’t know what an RSS feed was, I might be missing something important. Which it turns out, by the way, I wasn’t, but now I’m afraid not to look at it. At the end of each day, I have filled my head with a bit of everything and a substantial, nourishing, thought-provoking portion of … nothing. No wonder I too often feel mentally bloated, miserable, and distracted: I have been “eating” all day, never stopping to digest. Remember those blobby, shapeless humans in WALL•E, going through life as completely recumbent sponges numbly absorbing whatever was on the terminals in front of them? Those guys were strumming my pain with their pixels.
Given such an immense menu, it’s easy for all of us to become like the Social Network version of Mark Zuckerberg, treating whatever entertainment we half-choose with his dismissive “You have part of my attention … the minimal amount.” Doesn’t it become addictively easy to choose only those things that require minimal attention? The crime show you’ve watched so many times that you can speak the lines before Mariska Hargitay does trumps the novel you’ve been meaning to get around to. (For two years.) The movie you can kind of listen to while you’re looking at a click-through gallery of the fakest-looking celebrity hair extensions beats the subtitled (or even quiet) independent film. The constant anesthetic hum of electronic noise becomes more compelling than whatever the noise is about.
If you doubt that we’re headed for some ridiculous extremes, consider this prediction from The New York Times’ expert media trend spotter David Carr, who wrote that 2011 could bring a convergence of entertainment and social media that will let you watch MTV’s Jersey Shore on a “TV screen embedded with [real-time] commentary from trusted friends and people [you] follow.” The same experience, he suggested, could apply to Mad Men.
To some, this may sound great. To me, it represents, to put it as gently as possible, the gaping mouth of hell. I don’t know about you, but anybody who peppers me with witticisms, commentary, or any other interruption while I’m watching Mad Men is going to get unfriended fast. For one hour, I want my only relationship to be with that show. I don’t just want to consume it; I want to be consumed by it. Which is what the entertainment we really love always does for us.
I have friends who’ve recently taken their own steps toward reclaiming control — one is trying Internet-free Sundays; another has sworn off texting while in the presence of actual human beings. So, in that spirit, this year I plan to hold to the principle that half my focus is always the wrong amount — that sometimes the TV can go off, or the laptop can be put away, or Google can wait. I’m going to try to undivide my attention, and see if my entertainment choices (and my thoughts about them) get any sharper as a result. It couldn’t hurt. Well, that’s a lie. The scary thing is, it hurts already.