Now, Where Was I? Ellen Goodman

BOSTON — There was a time when I considered myself a champion multitasker. This, of course, was in the days when the Olympic event of technological multitasking was unloading the dishwasher while talking to my mother on the phone.

Fast forward to my office where I am sitting in front of a computer with a land phone to my left and an iPhone to my right. As I type into my Word program, Google is alerting me to the latest news in the health care debate, e-mails are coming in on two of my three accounts and I have a text message from my daughter.

Even this, however, puts me at the low end of the multitask scale since I am not Facebooking while surfing the Net, downloading iTunes and driving.

The truth is that I am terrible at multitasking. Worse yet, I have believed that my inability to simultaneously YouTube and IM makes me a technological dinosaur. Surely, the younger generation looks down at my inability to text and talk the way I look down on someone’s inability to walk and chew gum at the same time.

More to the point, l have lived with the conviction that the people watching TV while Twittering and surfing the Web have a secret skill, like polyphonics who can sing two notes at the same time.

Now I find out from Stanford’s Clifford Nass that there is no secret. High multitaskers are not better at anything. Even multitasking. They are worse.

Nass, who teaches human-computer interactions, led a research team that studied 100 students, high and low multitaskers. The high ones focused poorly, remembered less and were more easily distracted. They couldn’t shift well from one task to another and they couldn’t organize well. They couldn’t figure out what was important and what wasn’t.

“We didn’t enter this research trying to beat on multitaskers but to find out their talent,” says Ness. “And we found out they had none.”

Nass has yet to study whether they were bad at paying attention to begin with or were driven to distraction. But there’s a suspicion, he says, that “we may be breeding a generation of kids whose ability to pay attention may be destroyed.”

Before I exhale in relief and bond with others waving this research in front of their children’s (distracted) faces, a couple of things have to be noted. First of all, as Nass ruefully says, many multitaskers believe they are the efficient exception. They can talk and chew e-mails at the same time.

Second and related, the simultaneous media immersion has become the new norm. This is what normal looks like.

It’s the norm in offices where people are often required to keep chat rooms open and respond to e-mail within 30 minutes. It’s in sports arenas where fans in mega-buck seats actually watch the game on big-screen TVs and text friends. It’s in college classrooms where the professor’s lecture competes with the social networking site on a laptop.

It’s also the new social norm. It’s part of a world in which people walk together side by side talking separately on cell phones. Where you hear the click of a friend’s keyboard while you’re talking on the phone. And where Nass recently watched two students holding a serious conversation while one was surfing the Internet.

If the ratcheting up of media multitasking is teaching us not to pay attention, is it also training us not to expect attention? Nass, who is turning his research to everything from airline pilots to fourth-graders, has begun to wonder about students.

“I don’t know that this generation values focused attention. The notion that attention is at the core of a relationship is declining,” he suspects. “Is saying to someone ‘I am going to give you my undivided attention’ still one of the greatest gifts I can give?” Or has multitasking led us to a kind of attention infidelity?

What we are learning is our limits. Not just on the highway where texting-while-driving is as common as it is terrifying, but at the dinner table where kids insist (wrongly) that they can text and talk, at the office where multitasking is multidistracting, and in relationships where face-to-face competes with Facebook.

It turns out that we have only so many coins to pay attention. How do we hold their value in a media world?

I’ll explain just as soon as I answer this e-mail …

Now then, where was I?