The multi-tasking virus

In an essay written for Tim Ferriss’s blog, Josh Waitzkin, the former chess champion who was the subject of the book and subsequent film Waiting for Bobby Fisher, writes of his recent experience in returning to his alma mater, Columbia, and sitting in on a class taught by Dennis Dalton, “the most important college professor of my life.” Dalton, writes Waitzkin,

was describing the satyagraha of Mahatma Gandhi, building the discussion around the Amritsar massacre in 1919, when British colonial soldiers opened fire on 10,000 unarmed Indian men, women and children trapped in Jallianwala Bagh Garden. For 39 years, Professor Dalton has been inspiring Columbia and Barnard students with his two semester political theory series that introduces undergrads to the ideas of Gandhi, Thoreau, Mill, Malcolm X, King, Plato, Lao Tzu. His lectures are about themes, connections between disparate minds, the powerful role of the individual in shaping our world. Dalton is a life changer, and this was one of his last lectures before retirement.

But it was the audience’s reaction that left an even greater impression on Waitzkin:

Over the course of a riveting 75-minute discussion of the birth of Gandhian non-violent activism, I found myself becoming increasingly distressed as I watched students cruising Facebook, checking out the NY Times, editing photo collections, texting, reading People Magazine, shopping for jeans, dresses, sweaters, and shoes on Ebay, Urban Outfitters and J. Crew, reorganizing their social calendars, emailing on Gmail and AOL, playing solitaire, doing homework for other classes, chatting on AIM, and buying tickets on Expedia (I made a list because of my disbelief). From my perspective in the back of the room, while Dalton vividly described desperate Indian mothers throwing their children into a deep well to escape the barrage of bullets, I noticed that a girl in front of me was putting her credit card information into Urban She had finally found her shoes!

When the class was over I rode the train home heartbroken, composing a letter to the students, which Dalton distributed the next day. Then I started investigating. Unfortunately, what I observed was not an isolated incident. Classrooms across America have been overrun by the multi-tasking virus. Teachers are bereft. This is the year that Facebook has taken residence in the national classroom. Students defend this trend by citing their generation’s enhanced ability to multi-task. Unfortunately, the human mind cannot, in fact, multi-task without drastically reducing the quality of our processing.

That minds wander is not news – “wandering” may well be the default setting for our brains – but the scale and intensity of it today do seem to be something new and remarkable.

19 thoughts on “The multi-tasking virus

  1. Seth Finkelstein


    I don’t know what’s wrong with these kids today!


    Who can understand anything they say?


    What the devil’s wrong with these kids today?


    Who could guess the they would turn out that way!

    Why can’t they be like we were,

    Perfect in every way?

    What’s the matter with kids?

    What’s the matter with kids?

    What’s the matter with kids today?”

    [And no Nick, the pseudo-disclaimer of, there were always problems, but OH MY GOD THIS GENERATION IS THE WORST, does not get you off the hook – in fact, it’s even more old-fogeyist.]

  2. Kendall Brookfeld

    Laptops in business meetings are a big problem too. Sometimes they’re needed, but often people do exactly like these students, and use them to tune out.

    Google invites authors to speak at its campuses, and video of these is on YouTube. Watching a great talk by Lawrence Wright, the phenomenal author of “The Looming Tower,” about the roots of Al Qaeda, I was surprised to see that not only was the talk lightly attended, but half the audience had laptops open. But those “smart” Googlites fill the hall and are riveted for a talk about web analytics or other ephemera.

  3. Laurent

    I wouldn’t jump to the conclusion it’s a generational issue.

    How many of us multitask at work? How many of us break up an important conversation with someone in front of us to pick up the phone when it’s ringing? How many of us browse the Web at work? During conference calls how many of us press the ‘mute’ button and do something else (read email, etc.)?

    Probably most of us.

    This story looks more like an example of Nick’s “Is Google making us stupid?” essay (BTW Nick: I did read it without interruption – great essay!)

    Or it might be a case of the audience not caring about the speech. When I was at school there was no cell phone, but students who got bored found ways to kill time. From drawing doodles to even playing a miniature (and hidden) chess game. Now it’s just easier to kill time.

    Last but not least, a related anecdote about generational differences: my mom who is a (now retired) teacher was talking to young teachers who were complaining that students these days rely too much on their calculators. My mom’s answer: “When you were at school you didn’t learn to compute square roots by hand, did you? Well I did. And the generation before me computed cubic root by hand.”

    Every generation believes the next generation is hopeless.

  4. Brook Ellingwood

    While I’m willing to believe that life in the information age may have reduced my ability to concentrate on reading, I’m less willing to accept the premise that kids are paying less attention to lectures than they used to. The distracting technology I had at hand was a ballpoint pen and a lined notebook, which usually ended each quarter filled with 10% class notes, and 90% sketches, bad poetry, and random writing snippets.

    Certainly I at times wish I was a better, more attentive, student, but my professors seemed to think I was doing just fine. Perhaps attentiveness in lecture is a red herring when it comes to academic performance? Maybe what is being revealed isn’t that distractedness hurts learning, but that lecture is such an inefficient use of time that bright young minds have unused capacity that demands to be used in other ways?

    I was fortunate in that my college placed a great emphasis on seminars, in which the brain dump of the lecture hall was augmented by the Socratic dialog of students sharing, exploring, and refining their thinking on the topic. That was when the real education happened. I can assure you I wasn’t doodling during seminar, and I doubt current students are spending much time surfing Facebook during it.

  5. michael webster

    The rest of the article reads:

    “Many of the students who actually were engaged in the Gandhi lecture, the ones who wanted to learn more than to shop, were taking notes on their computers in a frenzy, researching events online while Dalton described them, typing every last word of the lecture.

    But Dalton had already supplied them with a detailed course packet with all the relevant dates and facts.

    His classroom is an environment for reflection, introspection, and letting resonant themes sink into your being.

    Unfortunately, to these college students, the notion of delighting in the subtle ripples of learning is almost laughable. Who has the time?”

    That probably describes the problem better: even the students trying to engaged, could not because of their desire to multi-task

  6. laht

    The brain actually likes distractions, it can be addictive too.

    The problem will be if it is more difficult to build stronger connections about a given topic while drawing and listening or following up on Facebook or reading email which might need a response.

    I always called multitasking a cheap drug, since concentration requires effort.

    If I look at the state of CS it seems like it’s better to doodle.

  7. grizzly marmot

    Do I have to bring up the fact that at one point the Catholic Church had to give up celebrating mass in Latin? How can anyone expect our young learners to take information in the way that we did? Perhaps the information in a 75 minute lecture can be delivered in 15 minutes of dedicated multi-tasking. When I see my patients ( yes I am a physician), I actively surf for data about how all of their medications interact, search the medical literature for case reports that are similar to theirs along with using the electronic medical record to create charts and graphs of their progress. I am more confident than ever that I have done a complete evaluation of their condition. Does this multi-tasking detract from the patient-physician interaction? You bet it does, some don’t want me looking at the screen while they are in the room (and if I had my way I’d have 2 screens going). They want undivided – eyes only on them – attention. The only thing that saves me is that I nearly always can show them a graph or a picture or some other piece of data that is really useful for them to help understand what is happening.

  8. Elvis Montero

    As with many things in life, excessive multitasking can easily lead you astray (especially if you’re in class and you’re required to reflect on what’s being talked about). However, I think some multitasking is desirable. Whenever one of my professors is talking about, for instance, economics of software development (I’m an IT grad student), I quickly search for the subject online while I hastily take notes of everything he’s saying. I can quickly contrast his teachings with online references. I believe this process enhances the learning experience (it has worked marvelously for me). If I feel the subject discussed requires my absolute attention, I close my laptop and focus exclusively on the professor.

  9. Simon

    I agree with your article title Nick!

    Fortunately at my company, at meetings people do not email others on their Blackberries etc. and are focused on the matter at hand.

    However, I’m aghast that companies like Google reportedly allow people to email etc. in meetings – if that’s true it actually doesn’t surprise me as Google is arguably full of half-finished products that have been released to the public but then seemingly forgotten by the company as they move onto this year’s big thing.

    This begs the question – is Google the first major corporation beset by the attention deficit multi-tasking culture that you’ve been discussing in your last few articles? Is this a trend that’s creeping into Silicon Valley to the detriment of companies based there?


    “some multitasking is desirable. Whenever one of my professors is talking about, for instance, economics of software development (I’m an IT grad student), I quickly search for the subject online while I hastily take notes of everything he’s saying. I can quickly contrast his teachings with online references”…maybe we can call this “subtasking within a larger task.” It is analogous to a pilot who talks with air traffic control while simultaneously adjusting the engine power, reprogramming the autopilot, and watching for traffic. These are all subtasks within the overall task of conducting a safe flight.

    The behavior of the students in Dalton’s article would be more analogous to a pilot who reads a magazine and talks to a friend on a satphone while beginning the approach at LAX.

  11. Nick Carr

    Seth, Your rant is out of place here. I don’t think the phenomenon is limited to kids at all, nor did I say it was. Nick

  12. Seth Finkelstein

    Oh, c’mon Nick – “Classrooms across America have been overrun by the multi-tasking virus”? Yes, you didn’t say it, but isn’t that at heart the purest geezing of “Kids today!” ? If anything, Josh Waitzkin’s iteration of that song is what should be described as a rant. Now, I didn’t mean to imply you thought this was *limited* to kids – but it certainly seems fair to note this specific post is an age-old complaint about kids.

    Sorry if I offended you.

  13. Chris

    “How can anyone expect our young learners to take information in the way that we did?”

    @grizzly_marmot & Elvis Montero: I don’t think the intention is an indictment of multitasking per se (although I do happen to agree with Waitzkin: I’ve read of several studies supporting the theory that multitasking’s no more effective than single-tasking, and some that suggest it’s far less so overall: cell-phoning while driving, anyone?). I think it’s meant to provoke a reaction to a classroom full of students at Columbia University Facebooking and GMailing and IMing and freaking *shopping* instead of paying attention in class. I can’t believe anyone would argue that’s a good thing.

    Sure, as Mr. Carr points out, the mind wanders — we’ve all doodled in class, passed notes, even fallen asleep, in class. But what’s described is pretty ridiculous. It’s one thing to doodle, or to doze off — it’s quite another to be actively engaged in throwing a sheep a Facebook friend. That’s not mind-wandering, it’s attention — just aimed in another direction.

    You can only “take in information” by paying attention to it. Eyes, ears, fingertips. That’s about it. If two out of three of them are doing something else, odds are that third one isn’t going to do much good.

  14. Adam Bachman

    There’s a very strong possibility that the real takeaway here is not the malaise and malady of multi-tasking and attention direction disorder[1], but a classroom from 20 years ago be reenacted for the benefit of students today.

    I can’t defend any of the students’ actions, what Waitzkin describes is rudeness and wasted tuition for sure. But, I think there is also fault to be found in the situation itself. The same lecture hall style classrooms have been in use for hundreds of years, but only in the last 10 have computers become ubiquitous. I finished college in 2003 and even then there were maybe 1 in 10 students with laptops and no wireless on campus.

    There’s an opportunity here. I’ve heard–and it sounds reasonable–that new business thrives at the boundaries. Where there’s turbulence and change, there is also opportunity. The image from this story that sticks in my head is a forlorn professor at the edge of retirement looking out at a sea of rectangles where 10 years ago he saw a sea of faces, or at least a sea of tops of heads. The more appropriate maxim (rather than “kids these days”) may be “things are changing, and they’re changing faster.”

    Maybe the problem is just with students getting dumber. But maybe the problem is that the screens only have one side. Maybe the problem is that everyone is looking at something different on their personal screens. Maybe the problem is that instead of experiencing the history the teacher is describing in any of the dozens of interactive ways the technology each student obviously had access to allows, they are expected to listen to a single person somewhere down in front talk about it.

    There is no silver bullet, the answer is not simply, “make it a video and put it on YouTube.” There is however an opportunity here to try out a lot of different answers. My personal vote, is get the heck out of the classroom. However it goes down, I’m excited to see how the world will be different for my children.

    [1] @Christian: “That’s not mind-wandering, it’s attention — just aimed in another direction.”

  15. Robert Jacobs

    Nick, as someone who works in education and who has taught in a 1:1 laptop environment, I can tell you the first thing I asked my students to do when I was about to give instruction was, “Pleas close your lids.” or, “Laptop closed please.”

    I am currently reading and blogging on John Medina’s book Brain Rules..

    “Multitasking, when it comes to paying attention, is a myth. The brain naturally focuses on concepts sequentially, one at a time.”

    You cannot multitask your attention. Students cannot multitask their attention. I know that “digital natives” are comfortable with multitasking, but according to John Medina, they are able to pay attention to all that is going on. Something is going to suffer. Each activity has it’s own needs and mental processes. Multiple mental processes cannot occur simultaneously and remain effective. Our students may want to do it, but it may not be what they should be doing. Let the debate rage!

  16. Bertil

    Although I can only condemn the students you describe, I have to agree with Elvis — and Licklider, one of the founding fathers of all this technology. In a report from 1973, he describes how the Internet (connecting all the mainframes together) can be used to allow viewers of a presentation to search more information about what is being discussed. After a few seminars (I’m a grad student) I certainly would have loved to have all the trivial questions answered this way.

    Personally, I do all that: I keep my laptop open, on-line and I search a lot during presentation, but the upside is that I use a scholarly-oriented quasi-browser (Papers, by Mek&Tosj) that helps me find the references and the details that the speaker is alluding too. I know I’m not the only one cursing him when he mentions the works of [-inaudible-] as central to his thesis without hinting at what that brave was about.

    I’ve recently bought things on-line, too. Don’t stare at me like that: I ordered on Amazon the book that was being presented — why? Because it wasn’t relevant for me, but many of the comments proved it would be great for a friend. I couldn’t carry the burden of remembering all the details about why I though it would be important then, so I did it right away.

    Maybe here is the clue to that young generation: impulses are the terrible habit they are — but they are also the best way to limit those efforts to plan, remember, schedule. Youngster do all that — too much of that: any night-out demands the managing capabilities of a wedding planner, simply because the cell-phones have transformed a drink into the most social occasional. Too much in their mind implies they optimize, and I did, too.

    That — and here is the key point of my too long rant — is that it is not multi-tasking: it is focusing all your energy on what you do, like the pilots who use all their senses at once to do one, complex task, fast. I focus on one thing, have everything at hand (hence the dramatically increased productivity with a bigger screen) and can’t stand having to look for something off-line.

  17. Spaddel

    Seth, your comment is superficial and has probably been written while you were surfing elsewhere.

    The simple notion that communication is merely code transmitted by a sender to one or more receivers has long been put to rest.

    Being able to chatter away on Gandhi at the next occasion is useless without understanding the impact that a concentrated mind can have on the practical plane.

    The current culture of distraction is one of the major obstacles not only to personal growth but also to social change for the better.

    Pushing the internet into Kindergardens is a diabolic ploy to preserve our unsound state of affairs.

  18. BobM

    I take Seth’s point, but the Inernet has changed the kids in this demographic. We started with laptops in 1998 at the college where I teach, and lecturing has become intolerable because of the students’ lack of attention.

    Different teachers have different solutions. The solution for me is technological: I teach exclusively online. But I do think something important has been lost in the live interactions that are no more.

    Practically speaking, most kids who don’t pay attention are making themselves into losers, for their ability to pay attention has become a major competitive advantage now. Some of them would be laughed out of job interviews. I am hoping for advisory council feedback that will demand stricter classroom behaviour.

    It is either that or lecture-style education goes, where else?, on the cloud, too.

Comments are closed.