Media Multitasking and the Fast Twitch Impulse

I saw on FriendFeed that Howard Rheingold pointed to this study from Stanford about attention and mixed media. The basic idea is that people that are high multi-taskers in media consumption find it harder to do tasks that require discriminating things that are important from that are irrelevant.

At the risk of cherry picking the first data point that supports my position, this is exactly the sort of thing I’ve been pushing back on lately. My gut feeling from my own life is that the attempt to stay up on the most recent information from FriendFeed / Twitter / the blogosphere / et al is an endless treadmill that burns a lot of time and energy but doesn’t make me any happier. I’ve been talking about wanting to be more mindful in my life, and I describe iPhones and Blackberrys as “anti-mindfulness devices.” They are built to take you away from where you are and put you somewhere else.

Last weekend, without any particular plan, I mostly stayed away from those sources. I used the computer but I wasn’t particularly paying attention to the data feeds. More and more I feel the need to take time off from the attempt to stay current. The bits of data that I *really* need to know real-time is pretty small. Severe weather, trafific and road closures, where my friends are having lunch. That’s about it. I’d be surprised if there were more than 1 in 1000 posts on Slashdot or Boing Boing for which my quality of life would actually be affected whether I read it now, next week or never. In fact Ryan on Signal Vs. Noise recently posted (I’ll quote the post in its entirety since it is one sentence long:)

How many of these supposedly important blog posts and industry articles actually make me better at what I do?

I’m not sure where this line of thinking is heading me and I’m not in any hurry to get there. What I really need is a better data valet system that will manage these things for me and bubble them up based on importance to me. My very first big project I wrote in Java back in grad school was an information crawler that allowed you to specify search terms and a weight on them, and would then crawl web pages and usenet to find matching information and sort them by this fitness function. I’d be looking for something like that that takes all my social networking information feeds, RSS feeds and whatever arbitrary information feeds, collates them and sorts them for me. Bits and pieces of this exist, but I’d really love to have an overall holistic manager of the whole incoming noosphere. What I really want is something like the mythical Apple Knowledge Navigator. Let’s make that happen, internet.

One Reply to “Media Multitasking and the Fast Twitch Impulse”

  1. Well put, Dave. I’ve been focusing on personal time as well…some of it is still online, but it definitely doesn’t involve obsessing over my feeds or checking out what the latest rumor drama is. I like the Knowledge Navigator idea, though! We do need for computers to get better at helping us out with this stuff.

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