Shortly before I went to the Stage the Future II conference, my boss at Harvard Business School sent me a link to this 2013 NPR Science Friday piece on “the myth of multitasking,” an interview with Stanford professor Clifford Nass (transcript here).
Nass passed away later that year, and Google Glass, which was the news hook for the NPR piece, never exactly got a chance to shatter our attention spans. Two years since the story, and do we not all know this by now? That multitasking isn’t as possible as our brains make us think it is? My sense is that we do. I hear people apologize for their multitasking with the same chagrined shame with which they speak of smoking or forgoing exercise or letting the television babysit their kid occasionally: Yes, I know it’s bad. I shouldn’t do this. I am a weak-willed organism.
What I found intriguing about the interview wasn’t the debunking of multitasking, but the design difficulties of getting people not to multitask. Nass explained:
The problem is, as people have become – love screens. So the more screens you put in the car, the more people want to look at the screen, and the basic problem is the windshield is just another screen, and as screens go, not all that an exciting one. So we have this true design challenge that we’ve never encountered before, which is the entire field of automotive design has to switch from how can I, the designer, stop distracting you because you really want to pay attention to the road, to a radically different world in which the driver says I don’t want to pay attention to the road, and the auto designer has to say how can I force you back onto paying attention to the road? It’s a really exciting challenge.
Now hold that thought. At Stage the Future II, everyone wanted to talk about “immersive theater.” Part of this is because of the phenomenal critical and commercial success of “Sleep No More,” but there seemed to be more to it than a mere desire to follow in the footsteps of a smash hit. “Immersive” theater, for those not in the know, is when you don’t just sit there and watch–you move around the space, you can interact with the performers and the set. Theater? You’re soaking in it!
And I wonder if part of the popularity of this artistic trend is because reality itself has ceased to be an immersive experience. We have so many devices to pull us out of whatever moment we’re in. If you want to be wholly caught up in one moment, body and mind and all, you almost have to design that moment, anymore. Or have a great artist design it for you.
Another quote from Nass that stuck with me:
Our brains are built to receive many stimuli at one time, but they’re related stimuli. The problem with multitasking is not that we’re writing a report of Abraham Lincoln and hear, see pictures of Abraham Lincoln and read words of Abraham Lincoln and see photos of Abraham… The problem is we’re doing a report on Abraham Lincoln and tweeting about last night and watching a YouTube video about cats playing the piano, et cetera. That’s where the detriment comes in. It’s extremely healthy for your brain to do integrative things. It’s extremely destructive for your brain to do non-integrative things.
Theater, it seems to me, is uniquely positioned among the arts to serve the emotional needs of multitasking people. Integrated multi-sensory stimuli? We invented that shit.