February 19, 2005
Ellen Ullman on Multitasking

Ellen Ullman, my favorite writer on the interactions between computers and humans, has an oped in the nytimes today on multitasking:

[D]istraction is built into the fabric of today's electronic world. Icons on the PC toolbar flash; ads on Web pages shimmer and dazzle; software companies send e-mail messages to say your software is out of date; word processors interrupt to correct your spelling; Web pages refuse to show themselves until you update a plug-in; lights on laptops blink at you every time the hard drive whirs into motion (which, I'm here to tell you, happens a lot more often than you would ever care to know). The screens of TV cable news programs make three-ring circuses seem calm. You can't even enjoy the 10th rerun of your favorite "Law and Order" episode without a glittering promo fluttering at the corner of the screen.


Notice that it's supposed to be the chip, not the human, that goes off to do something else while the keyboard idles. But internal engineering principles have a way of becoming external; software designers unconsciously adopt the values of the machine they're working on. After years of working in an environment where efficiency is a god and idleness in any component is intolerable, a programmer comes to think it's logical to keep humans as busy as possible.

And soon we, the users, give in to the idea that rapidly switching the focus of our attention is not just normal but advisable. So we drive and eat and talk on the cellphone, check e-mail in the middle of conversations, stop writing a paragraph to check its spelling, get used to ads that dazzle us while we try to read Web pages or watch TV. Everything in our machines encourages us to be like them: busy, attention-hopping.

This articulates far better than I ever could something that I've noticed about myself - I hate computer distractions, be they sound (all potential notification sounds are turned off) or popups (ooh, my download is finished, how important!) or anything else that seeks to interrupt me. This desire for lack of computer clutter is funny if you see any room or desk that I spend any time at: clutter city. For me, though, physical clutter doesn't distract (or at least, not in the immediate productivity-destroying way computer stuff does; Getting Things Done is slowly persuading me that clutter can have a more indirect impact on, er, getting things done.)

(Further parenthetical aside: Maybe this is one of the reasons tv on dvd is so compelling for people - being able to watch something without bouncing network promos allows for a more immersive experience.)

There are still other things I could do to cut down on distractions - does it really matter if I have email? or new items in my newsreader? What other behaviours have I learned that are more about the dictates of machines than doing what I want to do? As Nelson puts it, we need calm user interfaces.

I'm going to see what I can do to make this happen - I'm turning off all the notifications I have set up, but the hard part will probably be learning that I don't need to check these things as compulsively as a computer does.


Posted by Bill Stilwell at February 19, 2005 11:13 AM
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