Sunday, June 03, 2012

"Playback" does not prove that multi-taskers can absorb external information

With few exceptions, I don't believe that humans are generally effective at multi-tasking. It is totally a myth that the upcoming generations will be great multi-taskers[1]. Here is another myth to be aware of: I call it the "playback fallacy".

I will say something to my kids, notice they are absorbed with the screen, and ask them to pay attention. They will claim that they are paying attention, and will offer as evidence the ability to "play back", verbatim, what I have just said.

The problem is that they played back from "cache". Very analogous to the small amount of cache memory on a CPU. Information can be quickly stored and accessed there, but it is very volatile. It only becomes data when it is actively processed and stored to a less volatile location. So, if I hadn't said anything, the cache would have either been over-written by the next small stream of information, or decayed quickly within a few minutes, and the info would never have been absorbed.
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[1] Multi-tasking means actively processing more than one activity, concurrently. It should not be confused with "context-switching", which means being able to juggle and switch between multiple activities. I think humans have fewer absolute biological limitations on the ability to context-switch, though it is still problematic. One, it imposes the overhead necessary to manage the contexts. Two, there is risk of contexts over-writing each other's memory. It seems possible, though not proven, that today's youth will be better context-switchers.

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