Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Against Multi-tasking

Americans are trying to do too many things too often and in front of too many other people. We value “multi-tasking,” an ugly word that indicates a commonly-accepted and much-prized skill in postmodern times. We talk on the cell phone while driving, while eating (maybe while driving as well), while cycling, while defecating or urinating. (I’ve seen it, to my horror), and so on. We stare at computer screens while uttering acoustic blasts in the presence of others, while eating (I’m not sure about using a laptop while defecating and urinating; that might be harder to pull off; it’s not an edifying thought), while trying to give lectures or sermons—but not me (that is another essay on technology and pedagogy).

This means that our attention is divided into two, three or more sections. As a result, since our powers of consciousness are limited, we put less effort into any one activity while we do many things at once. So, we live life in fragments. See that driver swerving a bit? Yes, she is on the cell phone. See that other driver meandering at a ridiculously slow speed? Yes, he is on a cell phone—and even gesticulating into the air as he meanders.

We are divided and further subdivided by simultaneously doing all these things. Consequently, we are less present in our environments. Some write of the phenomenon, increasingly common, of “absent presence.” A man utters sounds into the air as he walks through the mall. He is using his handless cell phone. He is somewhere else, while here (at least physically). We are in cyberspace—and in our study and in a conversation (so called) with our spouse.

Reality demands an attentiveness that multi-tasking does not allow. Human beings especially tend to be opaque and mysterious beings, whose inner recesses are not easily discerned. We can push a key and make the computer or cell phone do something. We cannot push a key and understand or help change a human being. That kind of being requires more attention, more patience, more suffering. This is because we are made in God’s image and likeness, yet we are fallen and disoriented by sin’s manifold manifestations. We are sinners in need or reorientation according to truth (that which describes reality). Some of the most important truths about ourselves and others and about God himself are not easily fathomed—or when fathomed, they are not easily remembered. The discerning of these truths requires attentiveness, patience, and studiousness. These truths demand, as Pascal noted, being quiet in our own room without distractions or diversions. Conversations concerned about truth and virtue require the engagement of two people who are attending, respecting, and responding to one another without mediation.

If all this is true and important, several things follow. We need to slow down and become less efficient and effective, at least as these terms are defined by popular culture. We need to unplug more often, endeavoring do just one thing at a time and to do one thing at a time well. Perhaps we should simply listen to music in order to discern its nature, structure, and aesthetic value. This requires a one-pointed immersion into its sonic reality. Just listen and think. Maybe we should simply listen to another person, laboring to exegete his or her soul and bring our soul to bear on another’s pain, yearnings, and boredom. Perhaps we should read the Bible in book form and not jump from text to text to image to image as we do while “reading” it in cyberspace. (Is that really reading or merely retinizing?) Maybe we need to talk to someone on the phone and not listen to music while talking, not type an email while listening, not exercise while listening. Maybe much should change—within and without. Much should change if we think truth is being lost, relationships are being cheapened, and virtues are being soiled by our incessant dividedness, fragmentation, and alienation known as “multi-tasking.”


Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

Dear David:

Thank you for another item for the (burgeoning)"Horror File." The zombie-woman needs to be banished to an African village for a few months where they have no phones or computers at all. She might learn to listen and be with people qua people.

I am sorry you were shown such disrespect. It is rude.

Manners matter mightily.

Susan said...

Thank you for this post. As someone who all of my life has had to have "odd jobs" to pay the bills, I have read many job descriptions. Virtually all jobs these days say in the description somewhere "must be a multi-tasker." I have failed at jobs because I could not "multi-task" enoubh. It is frustrating. I am not put together that way. Add to that the cultural expectations that productivity means the more things you can do at once the more valuable you are, it is purely by God's grace I have a job at all.

jc said...

Going to such an African village sounds good. But I wonder whether I'll turn back to normal (or back to abnormal) when I return to the urban world.

Pilgrim in Progress said...

I recently attended the Chicago Marathon to cheer on my wife who was running amidst the throng. I was amazed at the number of particpants who were jogging while talking on their cell phones. 40,000 people gathered together with a common purpose (to complete the 26.2 miles), yet no community among them. Many of the participants proceeded in the bubble of personal technology - cell phones, mp3 players, etc. Imagine, 40,000 adherents to solipsism gathered together in one place!

Jeff_R said...

See my posts over at Cerulean Sanctum on this topic.

I think we're missing something in our hypercritical analysis of technology.

I repeat part of my post here:

Let me say that busyness is a problem - a disease and distraction that keeps us from God. But this is not only not tied to the kind of work we do (as I, like Tozer, would argue that the worker redeems and defines the eternal quality of the work - not the other way round), it is not a modern phenomenon at all.

The societal decay (for those who hold such a decay is occurring) cannot be tied to the invention of the Internet or of television or of PDAs and PCs, can it? Haven't we seen civilizations throughout history rise and fall because of human greed, human selfishness and human hubris? And haven't these propensities played out in agrarian societies just as viciously and destructively as the modern examples we might point to in technologically advanced societies?

Isn't the temptation to be "removed from" the moment and "distant from" the reality we are in based in the human drive to control, manipulate and possess - not in the availability of technology? And don't these tendencies play out just as "effectively" in non-technological societies as in technologically advanced ones?

I guess I'm simply saying that the social mechanisms seem to be neither here-nor-there in terms of the final spiritual condition of the society's citizenry.

abcaneday said...

Great blog entry! People are living fractured lives. I carry out my own little protest by the way I live.


Adam Omelianchuk said...


You are so grumpy. I love it. :)

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...


So how do you protest through your life? I have my TV-B-Gone (which hasn't been working well lately), refuse to teach with PowerPoint, spend a lot of time in silence, almost never use videos in my classes, and so on. I'm interested in your ways of protest--or anyone else's.

Doug Groothuis

Milton Stanley said...

Well said. I linked to your post this morning. Peace.

colet1499 said...


A good topic. Now why will you not use videos in class? I use them all the time and find them very helpful to spur discussions and interactions with topics raised.

Keep up the good work.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

Dear CIA:

Those are good pieces of cumrmudgeonly advice. Thank you. I turn off noise and image-producing devices in public as much as I can. Sometimes I shop higher-priced stores for music simply because they - such as Borders - are more humane and less insane.

No search engine will take the place of browsing through a library or bookstore. Embodied knowledge is different than digitized forms (such as this). I write of this in "The Book, The Screen, and the Soul" in my book, "The Soul in Cyberspace."

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

Here is the explanation for why I seldom use videos in teaching

It is taken from my book, "Truth Decay."

Alexander M. Jordan said...

Hi Doug:

Thanks for this thought-provoking post. I think Christians, especially, ought to question how much spiritual value multi-tasking holds. Our hearts are so easily distracted; perhaps we use multi-tasking as a way of making ourselves feel we are accomplishing something, when in fact we are just distracting ourselves from what really needs to be done, because of an uneasy conscience.

I'm all for using technology, but too often, technology seems to be using us. Still, like one of the other commenters here, I don't think that technology itself is the culprit.

For example, this blog that we are interacting through is made possible by technology, and provides opportunity for people who might otherwise never have met to engage with and hopefully edify one another.

I just came back from the first-ever GodBlog convention held this past week at Biola University.

One of the themes of the conference was that if Christians who blog do so thoughtfully and excellently, with a civility, humility and love that reflects that Christ is indeed Lord over our lives, then we can build a like-minded community that will be a powerful force for positive influence on our culture.
Thus technology can be constructive if used properly.

Still, I agree with you that if we who set about this mandate fall prey to the false notion that mere busyness equals significance and accomplishment, then what we end up saying on our blogs probably won't run very deep.

Wayne Leman said...


We need to slow down, slimplify our lives, focus on the individual we are relating to at the time, and, as a result, live healthier.

Thank you for the timely post, Doug.

colet1499 said...


OK, I can see your point about the eroding effects of TV. You cite some good sources. Postman makes salient points in Amusing Ourselves to Death. I actually do not use videos much in classes that run 50 minutes. I am teaching a class that runs about 3 hours once a week. If I do use a video, it is almost always some kind of documentary which we discuss. Considering so many students grew up immersed in the television culture, it seems reasonable to use a familiar medium to communicate. But I know your concern is no solely about the use of videos in school.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...


Given that students are used to TV, we should not use video much in teaching. We should engage their minds and abstract reasoning capacities, which are atrophed by TV. We need to concentrate on speach and text, not moving images.

Doug Groothuis

Twerpette said...

Doug, I have always greatly appreciated your way of expressing what needs to be said, and in helpful ways. I'm glad to find your blog (which I've blogrolled since June). Keep it up!

colet1499 said...


Thanks for responding. I know you're a pretty busy guy, though not of the multi-tasking variety ;).

Your position on multi-tasking in teaching is interesting. I'm curious, since you note that you seldom use videos in teaching, under what circumstances do you use videos? What type of videos would you consider acceptable? I'm not trying to be contentious, just interested in your thoughts.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

I almost never use videos. I used some talking head videos out of necessity one summer when I had an intensive summer class at the time I had voice problems. They addressed ethical relativism.

One video I've used repeatedly is "Unlocking the Mystery of Life," which explains some of the basic concepts of Intelligent Design Theory. Experts are interviewed, but more importantly, the computer graphics depict the irreducible and specified complexity found in living things. In this case, the images convey real and powerful knowledge. For my basic take on images, read Jacques Ellul, "The Humiliation of the Word" (Eerdmans, 1985).

Anonymous said...

this is cool...I want to read it to my (school) kids, but most likely they won't be able to handle it due to lack of attention span.

I have a strict rule in all my classes--NO IPOD's (or any other music devices, for that matter). They gotta have em put away from the moment they walk in the door.

I have this rule precisely b/c of some of the things you note--they are 'here' but not 'here.' Noise in the background takes away from their concentration, no matter if they insist "but it helps me concentrate...I can't work without it! (I hear this more often than you'd think).

Also, its slightly humorous in a classroom. We are all here in a room together focusing on learning, yet in our own little worlds...kind of like that solipsistic marathon one blogger commented about.

But its such a struggle to get them to restrain their use of these spawns of Satan. You'd think I asked them to slap their moms!