The Technium

Multiplexing vs Multitasking

Thad Starner is one of several pioneers who have been personally experimenting with continuous visual input devices, sometime called wearable computing. To most people it looks like he has a screen attached to his eyeball. Starner wore his for years (as has others like Steve Mann, who started doing this earlier). They are living the dream/nightmare of being on the web 24/7, even while walking. So what is it like?

The main question: If your brain is connected to the internet, can you think of anything else? Michael Chorost interviewed Starner (below) in World Wide Mind: The Coming Integration of Humanity, Machines, and the Internet, p.142,160) As far as I can tell, research with the population at large to date suggests that our ability to multitask is not as great as we think it is. In other worlds, when we multitask we do less well on more tasks. When Chorost asked him about this, Starner makes an interesting counter claim:

Mike chorost and thad starner

Starner replied that he multiplexes rather than multitasks. Multiplexing means doing tasks that reinforce each other. For him, taking notes and having conversations are tasks that parallel and enrich each other. They are multiplexed. On the other hand, he doesn’t try to manage email during a conversation or while walking down the street. That would be multitasking. “If the wearable task is directly related to the conversation, the the user’s attention is not ‘split’ and multiplexing can be pretty effective.”

As Thad Starner explained to me, distraction can be avoided by multiplexing rather than multitasking…. We have no difficulty absorbing all at once the music of a parade, the sight of uniformed marchers, bright sunlight, an autumn breeze, a pain in one’s knee, the smell and taste of hot dogs, and the clasp of a loved ones’s hand.

I can think of other multiplexing combinations like driving a car while auditing to a book. In theory this should not work. How can you read and drive at the same time? I know that when I am listening to an audible book I am totally engaged. If it is a great book, I am transported to that world 100%. I would think my conscious mind would not be capable of doing anything else. Yet, I am pretty sure that my driving while listening to books is very safe. I must be multiplexing the two actions, though I don’t know what synergy they have. There seems to be some non-rival part of my brain that takes over the driving. That part of my brain has been driving for many years, and it has also been driving *while listening to books* for almost 30 years! (Zero accidents so far.) Both are fairly high-order tasks. I haven’t researched the science on auditing while driving so I don’t know if I am merely fooling myself, but it sure feels like multiplexing to me.

We can listen to music while cooking. Some folks do bills while watching TV. There may be other multiplexing combinations I don’t know about. Is there an example of multiplexing you do?


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