I wrote my thesis (on American writer Charles Bukowski) on a manual typewriter, getting through reams of paper and pints of Tippex in the process. Little did I know I would spend a significant part of the rest of my life typing, on all kinds of devices and in all kinds of situations. I’m not alone in this; everyone seems to be texting, emailling, writing documents and typing URLs – the world (at least the academic and professional bit of it) has become a vast scriptorium (the room in a monastery where monks would labour over illuminated manuscripts.) Except rather than crafting our text as a thing of beauty and meaning, we tend to write with the speedy desperation of someone falling off a cliff. And the words of the vast collaborative novel we are writing are already erasing themselves.
When I first started doing occasional guest lecturing, the tendency for students to be texting and surfing while I was talking disconcerted me somewhat. I felt a bit irrelevant, like a radio left playing in a corner while someone does the ironing or makes a phone call. However I gather that multitasking makes students ‘feel more productive and less stressed’and many believe it makes them more efficient, though there may be pitfalls. It’s something they’re simply good at and has become normal.
However multitasking isn’t confined to the student world. I have noticed at recent meetings several people around the table using Blackberries, PDAs etc – it seems OK (in modern organisational etiquette) to sit there absorbed, motionless apart from rhythmic finger movements, transported elsewhere, praying an electronic rosary to a data god rather than focussing on the agenda or eating the biscuits. And even those who can abstain during the meeting itself rush to deploy phones/PDAs/laptops during breaks – what used to be a cigarette break is now used to exchange packets of data over the ether, with the same furtive haste and addicts’ camaraderie as was seen during the Nicotine Era (now largely passed.)
So I guess the students are just practising.