Taking Multitasking to Task: Mark Harris tries to stop gorging on technology

WALL-E-humansImage 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.

Comments (26 total) Add your comment
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  • UGH

    I was hoping to see Martha Ray’s “Mark Harris” after reading the title.

  • Sonny

    Never heard of ‘em.

  • immodiumabuser

    What an intersting challnege – one screen at a time. I might try that too.

  • BrandonK

    I’ve noticed that it takes some effort nowadays for me not to play with my iPhone while watching TV. I’m definitely more easily distracted than I was when I was younger.

  • Sara

    I have the habit of watching stuff from Netflix – through my Wii – while checking FB, Twitter or Gmail on my laptop. I am trying to do one screen at a time, but I get distracted or I want to look up who a random guest star is on a show I’m watching and then it snowballs.
    This is also why I’m holding out on getting a Kindle. I don’t need another screen to stare at. The book will be just fine if I can pry myself away from the TV.

  • Josie

    As I read this I had a macbook, a PC, and an iPad in front of me.

    I like the idea of Internet Free Sundays, but with my job would never be able to make it work.

    • TV Junkie

      I think the fact that we’re so technology obsessed has something to do with our insane need to constantly be “at work”. With the internet and smart phones, our jobs have become a 24/7 thing and we seem to feel guilty if we’re not available all the time. Perhaps if we lived in a country where rest was more important than work, we wouldn’t be so easily distracted by technology.

  • Deanna

    I think I have subconsciously been doing a similar thing myself. I very rarely pick up my computer on the weekends, except for a quick check of FB or email. I have been reading a lot more, and when I am reading a good book, I make myself turn off the tv that I’m not really watching anyway.

  • Katie G

    my brother needs a technology intervention. He will spend an afternoon, laptop opn playing some online game, while watching TV, while sending emails on his iphone, while he’s got a book open on his lap…

    Personally, I feel the same way as you do, Mark. Even my cell phone is sad and paleolithic in comparison to everyone else I know. Doesn’t even have camera on it (SHOCK! HORROR!)

  • ultrawoman

    I’ve quit texting in front of people b/c I found I was irritated when I was talking to someone and they were giving their attention to their phone. If I’m out with friends, my phone is off.

  • Sam

    No lie…I actually read this article on my iPhone while watching American Idol.
    Definitely more ADD in this day & age…

  • Rob

    Have a read of Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows.” It’s about technology and the brain, and it will provide you with good motivation to leash your technology.

  • Catherine Pino

    Thank you, Mark, for this insightful, compelling article. “So in that spirit, this year I am going to hold to the principle that half my focus is always the wrong amount” – BRILLIANT! Yes! That thought, among many others, will stick with me this year, as I resolve along with you to eat less. Thank you. This article is a much needed reality check for our times.

  • Jocelyn

    I loved this column – it’s so true that I find my attention increasingly fractured these days. I am going to try the Internet-free Sundays and see how it goes (checking movie showtimes doesn’t count, right?). Thanks for a very insightful column!!

  • Orleen

    Having the freedom and the unlimited choice is not bad. Obviously the problem is to manage all these resources. It’s like complaining that you have too many windows in your house. Yep, you can’t watch from all the windows simultaneusly, but believe me, as I come from a communist country, it’s much worse to have only one window to the world.
    Another aspect of the problem is that apparently the author is single.
    If you have kids, disposing with a laptop for yourself, and an Internet-connected TV with Netflix for the kids is sometimes a blessing.
    I think humans will accomodate and learn to manage their communication and entertainment devices. And hope always all of them will have the On/Off button.

  • Chris

    In think I’m one of the few people that don’t Facebook, Twitter or MySpace. Yes I’m on XBox Live but I’ve had to “put the hammer down” because some people on one’s friend’s list use gaming as a form of control. Plus most guys can’t play with a female in the room because it becomes like high school. Even if I wasn’t married I wouldn’t look for a girlfriend on a gaming site. Tech is cool but some people need to learn some basic life skills. Quit using online as your personal “dumping ground”. P.S….if you aren’t getting paid to test or play games….the term PRO on your profile is bogus!!!!

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