Becoming the Jack of All Trades, Master of None

I’m thinking this draft is too vague and not concise enough. I’m not sure if my opinion is stated clearly. I need to quote Simpson more, and clearly state whether I support, refute, or modify her claim that multitasking inhibits concentration and detracts from effective communication.

Becoming the Jack of All Trades, Master of None:

Responding to the Unquestioned Demands of Multitasking
Rough Draft

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            At the turn of the twentieth century information consumption hit an all time high. Managing all the information required new methods of organization and processing. Technology quickly came to our defense and created new ways of its gathering and dissemination.  Mankind is now ingesting more information and juggling more tasks than ever before. As we incorporate more and more technologies that aim to improve our efficiency and effectiveness, the question remains if multitasking truly contains detrimental tradeoffs worth exploring. There is a poignant expression that describes the nature of those who specialize in multi-tasking: “Jack of all trades, master of none.”

            As the industrial era gave way to the information era, technological advances produced computers that allowed businesses and people to tackle more tasks with greater efficiency resulting in an influx of knowledge. The internet presented itself as the perfect catalyst that spurred the flow and exchange of this knowledge. As the need to harness and organize this information became a priority, the demand for people to make sense of it all gave rise, resulting in the emergence of analytic thinkers: engineers, computer scientists, lawyers, investment bankers, accountants, and MBA’s. A generation was born into a world where crunching numbers and juggling tasks was prized and rewarded. Acing standardized tests and performing in rigid curriculums meant to regurgitate knowledge has been the benchmark for success. In the process, it seems, the need for deep, creative thought has been overlooked.

            Mainstream society is currently a single interconnected whole where the populous is integral in dictating current trends through its contributions. People are required to share themselves, their opinions and their interests with the world, be it through their cell-phones, Facebook, twitter, or other technology.  The resulting trend is a society constantly being pulled in all sorts of directions as their attention remains commanded by the whole.

            Joanne Simpson is an excellent observer of the multi tasking phenomenon. As a professor, she has a front seat in witnessing the effect of a culture constantly demanding the attention of the developing youth. In her essay Multitasking State of Mind Simpson illustrates her experiences as an educator dealing with a generation of mentally taxed students raised in a world that expects interconnectedness and constant communication.

            Because technology has allowed people to manipulate information and knowledge with lightning speed, people openly adopt its presence in their life and give little thought to the accompanying tradeoffs. Simpson believes people have gotten carried away with all the positive aspects of being able to manipulate this information. While technology allows us to do more with the time we have, instead of freeing up our thoughts and free time, we become entrenched in even more tasks. It is clear that people in our culture are packing more and more into their daily lives as technology helps them manage the flood of information and activities. PDA’s, smart phones, and laptops allow for ultimate organization and even allow for work on the go.

            Simpson reminisces to her experiences prior to the tremendous technological boom when people’s lives were slower, more thoughtful and directed. “As I remember it, I still paid attention to one thing at a time” she recalls.  As tasks were allotted to specific portions of time, thoughts were more continuous and distractions were numbered. Nowadays, people manage to accomplish inhuman amounts in a single day. When Simpson polled her classroom at to whether they do several things at once, every students hand was raised. Watching television and listening to an IPOD while doing homework are almost an expected part of studying.

            With technologies help, people are expected to produce the same quality of work in half the time. Despite the efficiency of doing more, the depth of thought required for these tasks remained the same. An example is writing papers. Once an arduous process of continuous writes and rewrites, accompanied with countless edits and proofs, computer word processers gave people the ability to type at lightning speed, and leave the majority of editing, punctuation, and spelling, to the computer while still producing relatively high quality work. When this level of performance is achieved, it is demanded everywhere. Soon the act of writing becomes a single task instead of a process. When this happens form is left unrefined and content is sacrificed.

            Consider the process of research writing. Before computers and databases, hours were spent in the library burning the midnight oil, flipping through pages, hand writing notes and bookmarking pages. Compiling the information was an even greater task. Academics were all too familiar with the discipline and focus required for a typical research paper that required twenty four hours of effort.

            Today students are able to jump on a database, read article summaries with lightning speed, bounce from web page to web page, refer to citation machines, and use the ctrl+F function to find their information with minimal effort. The compilation of this information is just as quick.

            What we are seeing with the adaptation of technology is a decline in sustained effort towards given tasks. Quality ideas and work are a culmination of focus, concentration, reflection, and continued applied effort. Jumping from task to task, aside from the time lost in transition, doesn’t allow the mind enough time to familiarize itself with concepts and understandings. The superficial level of thought allotted to ideas consequently jeopardizes the student’s ability to articulate these ideas. Simpson is not amiss when she notices students coming to class in dazed and distracted states. When they step into her classroom they enter a place very different from their connected world; their attention is demanded everywhere as they juggle multiple priorities simultaneously.  The classroom is a place where prolonged attention is required to hash out the idiosyncrasies of an idea.

            While Simpson presents a persuasive case for multitasking’s detrimental effect on concentration, and its translation to poor communication, there is an unspoken standard of normalcy that her essays infer. Simpson claims that multitasking has left students more distracted and less able to concentrate. She spoke of Multitasking as an anti-Zen and describes how really living involves concentration. I would argue that Simpson is taking a conservative and bias approach to these changes in our society. Multitasking is a result of our adaptation to changing demands.  She outlined the negative effects she witnessed as a professor, but failed to mention how multitasking has contributed to the overall productivity and efficiency of work. The very e-mail she uses to illustrate a student’s ineffective communication skills provided a clear example of how technology has opened the lines and eased communication with her and her students.

            Perhaps the sheer ease of communicating and being connected has caused people to overlook quality. E-mails, texts, status updates and posts are sent by the dozens. The sheer volume messages sent daily may have people overlooking the quality of messages they send, not because they can’t send quality messages, but because being efficient is a greater priority. When hand written letters were the norm for communicating, much time was spent during the writing process to ensure effective communication because few letters, by today’s standards, were sent out.

            Its possible that Simpson has it all wrong and that the academic setting is the real problem. Perhaps its rigid, inflexible constructs don’t allow students to synthesize the volume of knowledge that they normally do. Perhaps students are bored and not stimulated.

            Simpson states that “really living and connecting with people—requires concentration, not distraction”. It sounds as if Simpson believes that ‘connecting with people’ is something that happens one person at a time. In our generation, information is prized. The thoughts and ideas we seek are gleaned from volumes of people. No longer is one person enough to qualify an experience or an idea. This generation seeks to understand and contribute to the consensual understanding of people. We ensure sound scientific literature through peer reviewed studies, vote for our American Idol contestant, give five stars to YouTube videos, and contribute to open forum discussions to share expertise and knowledge. If our aim is to seek and verify truth and knowledge as a people, than connecting with the population is what matters most. Not, as Simpson believes, one person at a time.