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The multitasking human being

By Jean-Claude Elias - Feb 13,2020 - Last updated at Feb 13,2020

Is it technology that is following and adapting to our needs and behaviour, or is it the other way round? Whatever the answer may be, the result is here, we have become multitasking human beings, by will or by force, for better or for worse.

Taking a close look at the characteristics of the microprocessors that make our computers and smartphones run is instructive and enlightening. You certainly do not need to do that at the complex, purely technical engineering level. Suffice to see that one of the main aspects of the processors improvement, alongside sheer speed, is multitasking, the capability of the chip to accomplish more than one task at a time.

Intel, the main maker of microprocessors for computers, AMD, NVidia and Samsung (the maker of the Exynos), they all put the stress on the number of “cores” in their chips. To put it in simple terms, one core is equivalent to one computer running one task. The greater the number of cores, the more tasks can be performed at one time, in parallel, as if you had several computers working for you.

For example the Exynos 9810 has 4 cores and the Exynos 9820 has 2 or 4 cores, depending on the model. Intel’s i7 processor for consumer-grade laptops has 4 cores and the company’s high-end chip for server computers, the Intel E5 2697 V2, has 12 of them!

Nowadays, if you shop for a processor for your computer or mobile device you would care for the number of cores as much if not more than for its speed, or clock rate as it is referred to.

So it is agreed, computers can perform more than one job at a time, like playing back high-definition audio, while browsing the web, running the resources-demanding Photoshop application, sending emails, and backing up your data to the cloud. This is nothing new in the digital high-tech world, it is just that users recently have become more aware of the phenomenon and have learnt that, as said above, the ability to multitask can be more important than pure processor speed.

Using multitasking computers and smartphones means that we, ourselves, have become multitasking human beings — this is an obvious observation — it is plain logic after all. The consequences, however, should not be underestimated.

Two interesting quotes taken from a Wikipedia article on the subject: “Multitasking can result in time wasted due to human context switching and apparently causing more errors due to insufficient attention.” And: “In 2010, a scientific study found that a small per cent of the population appeared to be much better at multitasking than others, and these people were subsequently labelled supertaskers”

How many times have you found yourself in a situation where you had to reply to an urgent email, or check a WhatsApp message, or answer the phone, while editing a Word document, entering your home expenses in an Excel sheet, listening to your favourite playlist in Spotify and checking the weather forecast for the night, all this while uninvited pop-up windows aggressively show on your screen to let you know that Roger Federer is out of the Australian Open tennis tournament, and that your supermarket is offering 7 per cent discount till the end of the week? Not to mention the infamous “updates are available — click to start updating” pop-up notifications.

Over the last five to 10 years the consequences of multitasking have become the subject of worry and at the same time of academic scientific research. Whereas some see it as an evil thing, others think that it is actually benefitting our brain. The wiser ones are drawing the usual list of pros and cons. At this point in time no clear lessons have been drawn and no final conclusions reached.

One thing is sure: technology will continue to move up faster than we can analyse its consequences on us and learn how to deal with it in the best possible way. This alone is a rather sad, frustrating state of affairs.

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