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I'm Erin Judge. I'm a comedian and a writer. I live in Los Angeles. Let's hug.

June 7, 2010

blog-task-tic

In today's New York Times, the tech cover story is about technology stealing our lives. I have several extremely important thoughts about this series of articles and features, and this blog is the only place I can vent my urgent opinions about such ephemera, ergo I will do so:

1. Some dude named "Kord" is described as being compulsive about email, checking constantly and always being distracted by it. They liken this to drug addiction, or perhaps food or sex addiction. To me, in this guy's case, it's actually more like gambling addiction. Several times in his life, this Kord dude, who is in the business of starting start-ups (or doing start-ups or making start-ups or launching start-ups or whatever the gerund is), has received an email offering to buy his company/product for over a million bucks. So, by my thinking, just like the gambler who returns to the slot machines obsessively with the memory of the one time he hit the jackpot, Kord is conditioned to constantly check his email. It's called intermittent reinforcement, or reinforcement on a variable-ratio schedule. Look, I Googled it for you.

2. I seriously question the definition of "multitasker" throughout the article. The researchers seem to label people "multitaskers" if those people self-report to be always checking too many input sources, constantly getting distracted by online stimuli, or compulsively looking at the various messages on their mobile devices. The thing is, I'm not sure those people would call themselves "multitaskers." The article then goes on to point out that these self-defined "multitaskers" tend to suck at the actual practice of multitasking. I, however, turn out to be really really good at it. I would never define myself as somebody who must constantly check email or texts or fifty different websites, but I would definitely describe myself as somebody who is good at multitasking. So the definition of terms thing is a thing here, people.

3. Finally, there's this gem:
Researchers say there is an evolutionary rationale for the pressure this barrage puts on the brain. The lower-brain functions alert humans to danger, like a nearby lion, overriding goals like building a hut. In the modern world, the chime of incoming e-mail can override the goal of writing a business plan or playing catch with the children.


Ahh, popular science journalism's take on evolutionary bio and psych! Do you ever get old? No you don't!!!!

In this particular example, we can see a common problem: by implying that primitive man needed to be able to arrest his hut-building instantly lest he be eaten by a lion, the writer inadvertently suggests that this time in human history - hut-building days - was the origin of this distraction-prone tendency. Like perhaps only 2% of humans had the mutation that allowed them to get distracted appropriately, thus beating out all the other humans who would become lion meat while trying to thatch their roofs. Of course, that's ridiculous. Lizards get thrown off their rock-sitting or eyeball-licking or even boots-knocking by the introduction of a threat. The distraction thing is an old, old, OLD-ASS mechanism, and our ability to remain relatively focused on more and more complex tasks (and to return to whatever task got interrupted) is what developed on top of that, over thousands of years. Not every step of our cognitive evolution happened after Homo sapiens started lumbering around; not even close.

Of course, that's not exactly what the article is saying, but I would argue that it's a common problem in our popular thinking about evolution to figure out some lion-based reason we humans do something or have something or feel something, and then kind of vaguely give it a "well there you go then."

And that's just not sciencey enough.

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