Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Look, No Hands

CNN has been running an interesting series on the social and psychological impact of smartphones. This is worth checking out.

The first installment showed an illustration of a man at a French restaurant, face buried in his smartphone while a waiter on a unicycle spins plates on sticks and balances a ball on his nose. This is indeed a case of a picture being worth a thousand words. The artist got it completely right; the waiter is acting out (and parodying) the antics of a smartphone user presumably skilled in multi-tasking. The irony is that the multi-tasker, according to recent research, can't juggle, balance and chew gum as well as he thinks he can.

Stanford University researchers arranged a series of experiments that would test the processing of multiple incoming streams of information on human cognition by individuals pre-determined to be Light Media Multitaskers (LMM) and Heavy Media Multitaskers (HMM).  Earlier research had looked at the effect of multitasking on memory, learning and cognitive functions.  This current effort was to examine whether and how chronic heavy multitaskers process information differently than those who view multitasking as a trait and not a state. If heavy multitasking is associated with deficits in cognitive control, then a change in multitasking behavior might be warranted (or I could ask outside this research, a change in smartphone design?).

The research produced some interesting and perhaps disturbing findings.  HMM performed worse on a test of task-switching ability. These users are more susceptible to interference from irrelevant environmental stimuli and from irrelevant representations in memory. In short human cognition is ill-suited for attending to multiple input streams and for simultaeously performing multiple tasks.

Some concluding remarks from the researchers: "With the diffusion of larger computer screens supporting multiple windows and browsers, chat, and SMS, and portable media coupled with social and expectations of immediate responsiveness, media multitasking is quickly becoming ubiquitous. These changes are placing new demands on cognitive processing, and especially on attention allocation."

"Many individuals will be increasingly unable to cope with the changing media environment."

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