Monday, October 3, 2011

Multi (hold-on) tasking

After over a decade of using Windows-based PC systems (ranging from Windows 95 through the developer version of Windows 8) and two years of iPod Touch and iPhone operating systems, I have learned quite a few things about how computers work. However, that is not what I intend to talk about today. What I want to discuss today is what I've come to realize about modern computers systems and what we can learn about ourselves when it comes to these systems.  In the early days of computing, DOS and UNIX systems were based on text entry, and these only allowed one program to run at a time, due to limited resources.  These were days before computer games had amazing graphics and before internet video became possible because you had to dial into the internet.  At this time, you could only realistically do one thing at a time, and it was fairly easy to focus on one thing at a time.

Sometime in the late 90s, a drastic change was made to systems like Mac OS X and Windows 95/98 which featured graphical interfaces and windows which contained much more interactive programs featuring menus and a variety of options within the program.  Under this paradigm, you can use several programs all at the same time, which leads to the ability to play music, surf the internet and play a game all at the same time.  This new idea brought about a major change in the way people get work done, because it enables easy copying and pasting of information between programs.  However, not everything about the way this works is good news.  With the ability to perform multiple tasks across multiple programs simultaneously comes the ability to be very easily distracted.  In more and more modern computers, and with modern operating systems, this ability to do more has become even easier.  In using Windows Vista and 7,  and the various incarnations of Mac OS X, is it very easy to get lost in a multitude of programs and lose sight of any work or task at hand.

I have found that this is also true with cell phones and with internet enabled televisions.  Basically if you can do multiple things on any one device at once, you get lost in a limbo wherein you can only half-heartedly focus on either one but you lose sight of both.  For example, when participating in conversations with people, it is possible to fully invest yourself in the conversation, but if any or all of the individuals have cell phones or laptops with them, it is easy for the whole group to fall into a pattern of texting, checking email or reading and lose the conversation.  Now, while this is certainly an effect of these devices, this isn't necessarily a horrible thing. In fact, it can be beneficial to have one or more internet enabled devices when in conversation as it quickly clears up informational gaps and settles disputes (this was actually where the original idea for the Guinness book of records came from).  The problem I have discovered with this happening too often is that you actually tend to lose sight of the task at hand when several tasks are presented to you. With a conversation in person and via text going on at the same time, it is very difficult to separate the two and focus on each. When watching TV while on a laptop, it is very difficult to pay full attention to the show, and it is a very different experience.  One of the major points made by iPad detractors is that it is not capable of true multi-tasking, although that is actually not really true.  The reality is, the iPad is simply not going to show you the content of more than one app at any given time.  It will notify you of something happening elsewhere on the device, but that is all that will happen.  Some say this lessens the overall experience, but allow me to make a different point.

I find time and time again, when watching a television show on the iPad, I tend to pay more attention to it, even if I'm chatting on it, because of this single-task functionality.  When something happens, I can choose to ignore it, or I can leave what I was watching behind, reply to the message, and then return to the video and restart it.  While this seems like a hassle, it allows for real enjoyment of the video, and actually lets me multitask less (spending more time focusing on the task at hand). The same is true of Mac OS X Lion and Windows 8; I can focus on tasks in full screen mode, blocking everything else out and replying or doing other tasks on my own schedule, I don't give myself extra excuses to stop working.  I sincerely do hope the computing world continues in this direction, we will all be much more productive if that is the case, especially because switching between tasks endlessly is what allows us to spend so much time procrastinating.  Maybe only doing one thing at a time isn't the worst thing ever.