Spent my 90-minute train ride into the city yesterday reading Walter Kirn’s sharp Atlantic essay, “The Autumn of the Multitaskers.” Multitasking, Kirn writes, stresses us out, dumbs us down, and, extrapolating from his personal experience, makes us drive off the highway and through barbed-wire fencing at high speeds somewhere in Wyoming.
So I sat there on the train nodding in agreement with Kirn’s arguments (“multitasking eats up time in the name of saving time”) and silently urging him on (“The First Law of Multitasking dictates, any two or eight or 16 processes that can overlap must overlap”) and pulling for Kirn to tell ‘em off good, and yet, the entire time I was reading and agreeing and urging on, I was also listening to Guided By Voices via iPod and earpiece.
And the problem with this kind of behavior—and there’s really no way to say this without sounding like a cranky Luddite coot—is that it ill-serves Walter Kirn and Guided By Voices and me, because an essay as fine as Kirn’s and a song as good as “Everywhere with Helicopter” both deserve to be appreciated on their own terms and not merely as strategies to distract me or insulate me from the noise of the guy in the next seat over braying into his cell phone.
I’m old enough to remember making that same train ride without cell phone or iPod and not really minding it. But it can’t be done today, or at least I can’t recommend it. There are too many other people multitasking, making their own noise, and you need some kind of barrier against all the bustle. So you plug in, dial up, pray for a signal and get through the ride. And the more media you can manage, the better your protection and the better we all get along. I guess that’s called mutually assured multitasking.