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Sunday, December 05, 2010

Hurry, distraction and the net-on-mobile

Imagine a young Newton trying to work out one of those famous equations of motion or Wordsworth thinking up Daffodils or Bach composing one of his gems while answering the cellphone while zooming down the highway on a motorbike.

I had a little argument via email with my thoughtful ex-student Navin the other day about the wonders of the internet, and then I read this article about the epidemic of multi-tasking (also see the New York Times article mentioned therein). I hope everybody will notice that a writer and a medical-school teacher have complained equally vociferously about exactly the same thing. Look them up, all, then get back to me.

I can vouchsay that everything from new publications being full of howlers and typos (which I never saw in books of the 1940s and 60s, though the proofreaders had no computers to help them!) to botched surgical operations to bankers messing up statements of accounts to third-grade essays being written by high school pupils to the alarming rise in road accidents to the fact that kids these days cannot remember things they ‘learnt’ three months ago while those of our generation and older can easily call back what we were taught many decades ago – all this can be laid at the door of this multitasking scourge, to which the mobile-net addiction contributes mightily. Think: what kind of a romance can you have, even, when the so-called lovers meet up only to check messages from their respective friends every two minutes? Who says it’s just an unrelated accident that so many of my ex-students have already broken up with their spouses within a year or two of marriage?

I thank God that I can still enforce the no-mobile-phones-in-my-class rule very strictly, and I pity the schoolteachers who cannot (as is now true in many places). They are wasting time on those who have become incapable of learning anything (so many ex-students who are in college now solemnly assure me it is impossible to pass examinations without cheating!) I shudder to think of the world of the 2030s, when all the people in their prime will be like this: a thousand grasshoppers jumping around in their heads all the time, hopelessly incapable of concentrating on any one serious occupation for more than five minutes, whether it be a debate or a piece of engineering design or driving a car or listening to music. Already people are blasé about getting run over by trains and buses while talking into their phones, and utterly shameless about texting away at an office meeting – I only wonder how much worse things are going to get. How much longer before parents by the millions ‘forget’ to bring home their children at night (as they are right now forgetting to pay their wards’ school fees), and surgeons ‘forgetting’ to sew up after operations? Looking at the kids whom I teach today, I can assert that such a scenario has now become entirely plausible. In this connection, also look up this post on my other blog.


Sayan Datta said...

I can't tell you how many times I have confiscated mobiles from my students, warned them sternly and hollered my disgust of the kids who cannot even eat, sleep or drink without constantly peering into their mobiles. The scolding seems to work but only for a short time and within a couple of weeks they become their normal selves again.
As for me, I always keep my mobile on the 'silent mode' as the incessant ringing drives me up the wall. The 'missed calls' keep piling up and I return calls of only a select few.
Sayan Datta

DEBARATI said...

Dear Sir,

I read the article named "Bring back Boredom" by William Zinser.

I am glad I wasn't born in the age of computers. I remember during my early days of school, we didn't have a television set even, not because we couldn't afford it but because they wanted me to be focused on my studies and music. Life was "slow" (if you compare with the today's pace) but it was peaceful.

Was this term "multi-tasking" coined at all then?
Don't think so. I agree with Mr. Zinser about the fact that the overuse of gadgets have resulted in "raising a generation of kids in front of screens whose brains are going to be wired differently."

When we were in school, we were not even allowed to wear watches. The only time we could use one was during our ICSE. And that was in fact the first time I wore a watch! My students of around 8-10 years of age use hi-tech mobiles; at that age I didn't even watch a television. Many people might consider me backdated after reading this comment, but honestly, I don't care.

In my classes I do make sure that mobiles are strictly put on silent or switched off so long they are in class, they reason being I don't allow any kind of distractions in class.
I have also seen many of my young students fall victim to ADHD, a term which I hadn't come across couple of years back.
Not only the kids these days that are to be blamed but there is a collosal pressure on these poor souls imparted by their parents.
I remember interviewing a student of class 5 or 6 whose daily routine was something like this: school-karate class-swimming class- piano class- tuition!! The list bewildered me! Do these youngsters have any option but to multi-task?

The break-even point has been crossed long back. It's high time people stop torturing themselves and the generations to come!
God bless!


Subhasis Graham Mukherjee said...

I thought I had seen most of the horrors of cell phone. Yapping away while driving with cell in one hand or cell jammed in ear by shoulder. Then comes multitasking of course (hey morons, driving is a 100% task). Drinking coffee with the free hand (where did that come from? driving requires two hands) is most common, even reading a book in some extreme cases (honest, not making this up). Throw smokers in the mix, they don't need anything but lips and a eye and half shut to handle that. All this even while doing critical and dangerous turns on busy intersections - which are tricky and accident prone with 100% attention and effort. Some of them seem to be having a lot of fun in the conversation, smiling and laughing away - hey multitasker, shouldn't you be doing just that? Some look very angry, stressed out and yelling (can't hear, can tell from looks). They shouldn't be driving, probably not be on the cell either and be trying to deal with the situation face to face. I have even seen distraught and crying people over the phone while driving erratically (usually very young or very old). Cruel as it may sound, please stop driving, cry and call for help or a cab if needed.

This province, like a lot of other jurisdictions across North America has made it illegal to use cell phone while driving unless a hands-free option like a bluetooth head set (one that make people look crazy, talking loudly on their own) or the incoming being piped through the FM radio of the car.

But talking on cell while on a motorbike takes the cake.

Subhasis Graham Mukherjee said...

Talking, texting and web surfing on the cell phone, as mentioned in this post, is mostly a 'planned' distraction which is abused for a variety of reasons. Texting and even yapping on the cell while at a office meeting (which is work and top priority of that paid time) is a way of dodging work, responsibility and a pathetic attempt to mask incompetence and inability to deliver where and when asked for. That critically important call taken during the meeting is probably from home on some house repair or such emergency that requires immediate attention and action. When they are actually there for the attention and action on the house work, guess what they are 'busy' and 'distracted' with? catching up on work e-mails, calls and follow-ups on the meeting of course. Convenient playing of tag at each place.

Students unfortunately can't pull the wool on the varieties of work and their priorities. Getting the best of education is priority one.

I remember Suvro created the first gadget/technology envy in me when he got a custom-made stereo system - blew my mind away when I heard the sound coming from those two big wooden boxes. Kept bugging my parents till they had to relent and get me a starter Sonodyne system.

Some music, low volume and melodious, is good for focussing and concentrating, specially for things like math. In Indian situations it helps in cancelling out other noises and distractions. But that's it - anything beyond, is definitely a distraction and counter productive. TV and studies is definitely not possible. Computer and studies is ok, if the discipline is there that one channel is music and the other is pure studies - every other distraction, messages, pop-ups, notifications, pings should be handled and dealt with maturely.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

In reply to a question from Debarati: the term 'multi-tasking' is pretty new, but some (a few very superbly endowed) people have always done it. Napoleon famously dictated official letters to six secretaries at once; Vivekananda was capable of the same sort of stuff. The thing has become a horrible menace worldwide only because millions of very average (or below-average!) people have started imagining they are Napoleons and Vivekananda-s.

Vaishnavi said...

Dear Sir,

If all multi-taskers were like Napoleon or Swami Vivekananda, that is if the multi-tasking was to a point and had some use; then I am sure there would be this rampant and rabid checking up on PDAs, shaking mobile phones for better reception, trailing a phone charger everywhere and so on. My next door neighbour got his kid a mobile phone when he was THIRTEEN. And I have since seen that boy completely glued to all kinds of electronic screens irrespective of who is around him or who is trying to engage him in conversation. Adults or children, nobody seems to realize the value of courtesy, of taking the time to enjoy each other's company, of conversation..

Krishanu Sadhu said...

First of all thanks for the blogpost , it surely acted as a timely precaution against the numerous technological distractions surrounding us. I had read the Times article earlier, and had been scared by the idea of being "caught between two worlds". Your article speaks in much clearer terms about the perils of 'multi-tasking'.
It is very true that the attention span of people ( especially young people) has reduced a lot,and with the growing onslaught of new 'smarter' devices, the situation seems bleaker.As you have pointed out earlier numerous times , we often don't care to put adequate thought to our actions . Almost everybody will go gaga about the 3G revolution,WiMax, cooler smartphones , etc ,but shouldn't we first ask to what extent we need them at all , in the first place ? We are living in an age of information explosion, and it is up to us to choose what we really want to know , to set our priorities right.

What's the cause for this kind of disorder ? Is it merely lack of self discipline or parental guidance in case of kids , or ill-effects of man's quest for technological advancement that can't be done away with? All I feel is that maybe it is time we should pull in the reins on fancy advancement to prevent 0s and 1s taking control over our lives.

Krishanu Sadhu