On a flight in mid-November, I managed to stay awake long enough to read through a great piece of magazine writing, Walter Kirn’s "The Autumn of the Multitaskers," The Atlantic (Nov 2007), p. 66-80.
It’s all the buzz in the blogosphere (OK, so what isn’t?). Blog of Rand goes into it in more depth, and notes the irony, for anyone interested in reading the whole article, that full text is "NOT online – go figure. The one article that the overly-wired need to read can only be read in print or online by subscribers."
I’ve read the likes of it before: railing against the scattered tugs and pulls of tech-connected culture, and the price we pay for bothering to try to manage it all instead of just focusing on something, anything.
What got my attention wasn’t the thrust or fluff of it, even though it’s one of those smooth, languidly composed narratives that’s a delight to read. It was one of the piece’s many linked tangents, on the spatialization of wired life. Recalling the ascent of digitization and quick communication in the early 1990s, Kirn writes:
We all remember the promises. The slogans. They were all about freedom, liberation. Supposedly we were in handcuffs and wanted out of them. The key that dangled in front of us was a microchip.
"Where do you want to go today?" asked Microsoft in a mid-1990s ad campaign. The suggestion was that there were endless destinations – some geographic, some social, some intellectual – that you could reach in milliseconds by loading the right devices with the right software. It was further insinuated that where you went was purely up to you, not your spouse, your boss, your kids, or your government. Autonomy through automation.
This was the embryonic fallacy that grew up into the monster of multitasking.
Human freedom, as classically defined (to think and act and choose with minimal interference by outside powers), was not a product that firms like Microsoft could offer, but they recast it as something they could provide. A product for which they could raise the demand by refining its features, upping its speed, restyling its appearance, and linking it up with all the the other products that promised freedom, too, but had replaced it with three inferior substitutes that they could market in its name:
Efficiency, convenience, and mobility.
For the proof that these bundled minor virtues don’t amount to freedom but are, instead, a formula for a period of mounting frenzy climaxing with a lapse into fatigue, consider that "Where do you want to go today?" was really manipulative advice, not an open question. "Go somewhere now," it strongly recommended, but always go, go, go – and with our help. But did any rebel reply, "Nowhere. I like it fine right here"? Did anyone boldly ask, "What business is it of yours?" Was anyone brave enough to say, "Frankly, I want to go back to bed"?
Maybe a few of us. Not enough of us. Everyone else was going places, it seemed, and either we started going places, too – especially to those places that weren’t places (another word they’d redefined) but were just pictures or documents or videos or boxes on screens where strangers conversed by typing – or else we’d be nowhere (a location formerly once known as "here") doing nothing (an activity formerly labeled "living"). What a waste this would be. What a waste of our new freedom.
Our freedom to stay busy at all hours, at the task – and then the many tasks, and ultimately the multitask – of trying to be free.
Right. Running to stand still. Liminal life in the digital desert. The physical, human, and cognitive terrain of modern, digitized, semtex-amped existenz.