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Multitasking and Issues with Communication in the Digital Age (Web Exclusive)

posted on February 1, 2008

Michael Bugeja is Director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University. Jan Bartlett is the Associate Professor and Graduate Coordinator for Counseling at the University of Northern Iowa.

Mundt: Now, I think we understand that there is a lot of studies that show there is a productivity problem and there is a lot of multitasking taking place. I want to ask you some questions about the classroom because some of us are in the classroom and some of us are not and have not been in there for some time. Michael, I'll start with you. How do you create a zone, as you said in that piece a few minutes ago, of contemplation, of meditation, of thoughtful discussion? How do you do that in the classroom?

Bugeja: Well, it's much harder because of the technology. We're wired and wireless in the Greenlee School and throughout, I think, Iowa State University. And what that has done is it's blurred the boundaries, very quickly I think the audience, the viewers know how e-mail has blurred the boundaries between home and work. The problem with these technologies that they are consumer technologies. They're not like our virtual reality application center or scientific technologies.

So we have blurred the line between learning and socializing. And we have blurred the line between teacher and student. And the problem them becomes who are you going to listen to without a teacher saying as at least half now of my faculty have said, no technology whatsoever. In fact, one says, if your cell phone goes off you get an F for the class. I mean, it used to be if you spelled the name wrong in journalism you get an F for the class and now it's if your cell phone goes off.

But there are actually some really important reasons why teachers are doing that because we are living in a time where the challenges in Iowa and the world are so great that these students who are distracted are going to have to be heroic because there is no way they're going to escape the problems that are going to hit them. So we're trying to get their attention for good and noble reasons.

Mundt: Jan, can you speak to the social impact of this, too? This is not only an issue in the classroom, this is an issue in the workplace, this is an issue out on the road, in the subway car if you're in a big city. Can you talk a little bit about I think the zones that some people are trying to create for themselves whether to allow themselves to do whatever they want to do or to close off some of this access?

Bartlett: I think you bring up a really important point. You're talking about balance. How do we bring balance to our lives? And I think that can be really hard. I was looking at a Web page for CNN the other day and it said, you cannot escape the digital world.

You know, it's all around us in all these different venues and at the University we're a little more forgiving, maybe we use technology in the classroom. But you have to have parameters for it. I think when we look at it in larger society there's lots of implications for families and children and it can even get into the realm of looking at wellness issues and mental health issues.

Mundt: Talk about a couple of those. Give me a couple of examples.

Bartlett: First I want to mention that I think we need to put all of this in context. And I told Michael I was doing some light reading before we started, Margaret Mead, and something that most people probably don't know is that Margaret Mead was commissioned by Dwight Eisenhower back in the 1950's to look at the influence of television because he was really concerned of the influence on television. And she came up with some really profound things in a book that was published in 1970 that really tracked some trends. We probably don't have time to look at them now, but they kind of spoke to the disengagement and the break-up of communication.

Mundt: Do you see that continuing now?

Bartlett: Absolutely. And so when I think about health and wellness issues I think that the best environment is one that is based on good connections in the family, in the community. What we see a lot of times is technology -- instead of in 1950, where a TV on the street brought everybody together -- now we see everyone has a TV in their room and maybe on their phones. It can become something divisive rather than something that brings us together.

So I think we have to use technology in a way that it is prioritized. We have to make good decisions for our families, in our classrooms, in our communities of what do we want to allow to influence our lives and what do we not want to allow influence in our lives.

Mundt: Michael, do you see kind of that communication breakdown?

Bugeja: I think all of the viewers see the communication breakdown. Whether or not they want to do anything about it or whether or not they want to continue to hype technology -- that is a personal choice.

But I was listening very intently to what Jan was saying about going back into the 70's and Margaret Mead. And well, we've reached the tipping point in society I think where we're no longer going to look to the future to solve our problems and wait for the next greatest thing. We're going to be looking into the past.

I should have a piece coming out in a couple of weeks in the Des Moines Register that solves an ethanol problem that we've been coping with for 30 years because I've stopped waiting for the next, I've stopped waiting for the battery that works because of technology or the global village that was supposed to come and we got a global mall instead.

I think what we're losing and we're losing tremendously is the ability to think critically. And if you just go back to how AIDS became a treatable disease with David Hoe, a physician, had all these technologies around him and they couldn't get that HIV virus from mutating around anything they threw at it. So he sat down and he said, well what are the odds of this virus mutating around three inhibitors? And you know what, they were near zero, and he didn't need the technology to do that. He needed some quiet and to sit and think.

How many of our problems now are we not going to solve because we are not going to sit and think, we're going to let the technology do it for us? I have a comment -- the technology has made us compliant -- and we are so compliant we have to ask in what ways.

When you put your computer on and your computer doesn't come on that's one compliant, when it comes up with pop ups that's another compliant, when you have to use your cleaner or Adware that is another compliant, when it tells you something is down or you can't get this or you have to go there that's another but if you open up your e-mail and you take a look at the ridiculous and sometimes tasteless spam that you get, now we are so compliant.

I think we're like sheep in the third go around of a rodeo. The first time the sheep tries to get away from the rope, the second time its shoulders slump and the third time the hooves come up in the air. Our hooves are up in the air. We tend to our technology like virtual pets. That is how compliant we are.

Mundt: Do you think that, maybe -- Jan, this is a question to ask you, and I'll get both of your thoughts on this. Do you think that with new technologies we have a tendency as humans to embrace and so overuse and to go wild?

With the telephone, there was a period of time when the telephone rang in the home it was always answered or it was nervously ignored. You didn't know who was calling so you may have decided to let it go but you felt pretty bad about it. And then we got new technologies, the cell phone, answering machine allowed us to begin to zone off a space for ourselves.

There is more stuff than ever now out there. But do you see evidence that people are trying to find some kind of space, that they've had enough?

Bartlett: I think it's become very intrusive. And so I think the only way that you can push it out is if you consciously do that. And so there are several different movements across the country, there's actually a tech-no movement where they say no technology at all, I'm not going there. So that's kind of drastic, but I think this is a really great question.

And as Michael was talking, I was laughing, because I remember the book Ergon when it came out, what we know about insight and innovations and all of those great ideas that come to us when we're just about to fall asleep. It's like you get this, oh, that's a great idea! Ergon was written by a home schooling student who spent most of his day walking in the mountains of Montana. And it's that down time that we get those points of brilliance come in.

And so my concern is we have so little down time. Our lives are just compartmentalized in all these little 20 minute segments. Often times our schools are organized in that way. The attention span, that's what they think about, that I don't know that the research really bears that out. I think we need more down time.

So maybe making conscious efforts to unplug, conscious efforts to have time to just contemplate, to relax, to reflect. We don't do a lot of that. I know with our students sometimes, it's a challenge, because you're really shifting gears. And what we do in our field of counseling trying to get people to really listen and to think about and reflect on what they're doing. And that is, I mean, it's important for all of us to do that.

Mundt: I think, you know, I'm like a lot of people I've got a lot of things flying at me all during the day but at night a lot of those distractions begin to melt away and that is the time when I often find that I have not only the most time to think clearly about things but that I accomplish the most. And maybe that is the sign to me and the sign to all of us that as we find ways to let go of some of this stuff or create zones where we can feel comfortable being away from it because I think there is a draw to that kind of stuff, that we can --

Bartlett: Somebody that I really like, her name is Chelas Glendine. She's an ecological psychologist, and she's one of these people that kind of is a little bit out on the fringes. But I really like her, because she makes you think a lot. And one of the analogies she uses is to get in your head a picture of a basketball court, add a little on the end so you get 100 feet, you have 100 feet in your mind and then you think about that whole distance in terms of humans existing on the planet.

Okay, the kind of society that we live in now this kind of high paced, high stress, time crunch society would take up about 1/5 of an inch of that time. So what she would say is the kind of condition that we have ourselves in as human beings it's not a situation that we've ever been in before. So we don't know where it's leading us, we don't know the impact and so maybe this is kind of unnatural. She was unnatural.

Bugeja: I have to pick up on that.

Mundt: We've only got a minute left but ...

Bugeja: Well, I've got a book to tell you about. This is not like any other time in media history. This is unique in terms of all the gadgets that we have with all the distractions that they are bringing us and I think just listening to you I could tell that you read books.

The emerging generation has cell phones that ask them on the minute what are you doing now and it's called Twitter, and now we have our hiring journalists in Washington who Twitter. So we've gone from your 15 seconds of fame in the Warhol era to your 15 minutes on the Internet era and now we have Twitter extending that fame with your own broadcast audience. So you're being competed with right now by a whole generation that is following their favorite celebrity.

That is a function of the news and a function of technology, it's a function of corporate revenue generation and that is what the tax payer needs to think about when we check up at our universities.

Mundt: Important conversation and there's a lot to feed off on this. Thanks to both of you for taking time to come out.


Tags: digital Internet Iowa technology University of Northern Iowa