Why The Term “Multi-tasking” Is All Wrong

The term Multi-tasking has become prolific.  If you have read an article about the millennial generation, Web 2.0, or the power and impact of the internet recently, you’ve no doubt come across it regularly.  It’s often referenced as the great enabler of the world’s tech savvy youths and just as often it’s fiercely debated as the great quality inhibitor. Prominent efficiency blogs like Lifehacker deride the term and lambaste multi-tasking as a quality and efficiency reducer. Surveys have been done, books written, and a ferocious flurry of debate has arisen around the benefits, negatives, and great undecideds associated with multi-tasking.  A debate that has spilled onto this blog repeatedly with the most pronounced instance occurring in my 2 part series on Educating Millennials. Unfortunately, we have it all wrong.

The term multi-tasking has never sat well with me.  Sure, it seems to fit some of the behaviors and is close enough in definition and appearance to what’s actually occurring that it’s been the best and easiest way to describe what’s going on – but as a tech savvy millennial the shoe never quite seemed to fit.

Multi-tasking is the simultaneous execution of multiple actions. Juggling is multi-tasking, patting your head and rubbing your stomach is multi-tasking. The way I search the web, chat, watch a movie and write all at once — That is something different.  It is parallel processing. The difference is subtle, but significant.

What is Parallel Processing?

First, clear your mind of any pre-conceived definitions you may harbor for the term parallel processing. What I’m talking about has nothing to do with parallel computing or Amdhal’s law. The fundamental difference between multi-tasking and parallel processing is the way our minds respond to, and deal with, the actions we are handling.  Using my previous examples, when juggling or patting your head and rubbing your stomach you’re performing two actions simultaneously.  As I’m sure most of us will agree, that’s incredibly difficult and our performance decreases exponentially the more tasks we add.

Parallel processing, in contrast, deals with a cycling, structured, hierarchical list which is continuously executed at a comfortable pace.  The speed with which that list is executed and repeated depends on an individual’s familiarity with the tasks and the time/focus each task requires.  A juggler can’t stop to take more time with one ball without losing the other 2.  An individual switching between browser tabs, a movie, and several conversations can. The advantage that millennials and tech savvy individuals the world over have developed is not the ability to do more at once, but rather the ability to handle more tasks almost simultaneously in a more time efficient and effective fashion.

The Skill Set

One of the fundamental components of parallel processing is task familiarity. If I sat you down in front of a massively multi-layer online game and you had never played before, your entire focus would be consumed by trying to move forward while interacting with the spatial environment. Chances are the degree of your familiarity with the action would be so small that it would consume almost all of your attention to execute it. However, fast forward a bit and you’ll have gained familiarity with the process and be able to automate most of it subconsciously. Before long you’ll be carrying on 5 conversations through the in-game chat channels, interacting with other players, traversing the virtual world and engaging in complex actions all seemingly simultaneously. In these instances, there are simply too many actions to be able to manage and participate in them all at the same time.  You can, however, cycle through actions based on the immediacy of their need and respond to each fully in lightning quick bursts.

One of our most incredible abilities is to take certain tasks, develop a familiarity with them, and then transition them into a familiar ‘second nature’ skill set.  When you write, you typically don’t have to think about how you hold a pencil or what muscles make the letters you want.  Further, as you write words, the familiar ones come to you naturally almost without a second thought.  It’s only the ones you’re unfamiliar with that you have to pause and spell out letter by letter, sound by sound. There are thousands of every day tasks we take for granted as developed skills and hardly notice. If you wear glasses, have taken them off, but still gone to push them up on your nose, you’ve experienced a perfect illustration of how our brain is capable of executing and automating ‘second nature’ behaviors almost subconsciously.

Why It Matters

The modern business environment is not the only thing changing.  The world we know, perceive, and interact with is being driven forward by powerful, expansive new technologies.  Understanding the way in which we interact with these technologies and how they change our behaviors is fundamental to understanding what’s really going on around us. The process followed while writing a hand written letter in the 1800s is almost unrecognizable when compared to the steps and process employed by a modern individual writing an e-mail or research paper. Significantly more has changed than the technology.  The very way we relate to, formulate, and execute actions has evolved.  Unfortunately, despite changing our behaviors, our perception of how the processes should work and the advice we offer on how to execute it, has not changed drastically.

This also becomes very significant in our understanding of what looks like a social disconnect. If you’ve ever walked up to someone engaging in heavy parallel tasking and had trouble engaging them in conversation or getting a response from them, it’s because you’re disrupting the process they’re comfortable with and the rate with which they’re executing the sequence. Chances are, whatever activities they’re carrying out are balanced near the uppermost end of what they can comfortably process. They’re in a rhythm, executing a sequence of actions and able to perform at that rate. Enter the parent or roommate who wants to talk about their day in real time, without consideration for the other 5-15 processes the individual has going on, and you end up disrupting the flow of parallel processing. The end result is always a general break down across the board.  I find it interesting that social norms tell us it’s rude to walk up to a conversation two people are having privately about African swallows and begin talking to them about astrological geometry, but not similarly rude to effectively do the same thing when an individual is using a digital device.

I invite you all to join me in changing the dialog surrounding technology and multi-tasking. Before honest dialogue can move forward it’s necessary that we adopt descriptive language like ‘parallel processing‘ that accurately identifies and describes the phenomenon.

Agree?  Disagree? Thoughts or comments?  Please share them in comment form below.  As always I love your feedback and discussion. Additionally, I’d like to thank Dr. John Crosby for his feedback and collaborative ideas on this subject.

Are Virtual Worlds The Harbingers of The End of Society?

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Audio: Are virtual worlds the harbingers of the end of society?

When people discuss the future of online communities and virtual environments it’s the question that nags at the back of everyone’s mind.  Even among virtual world evangelists it’s a topic of concern, apprehension and uncertainty.  A concept and concern so powerful that mega hits like the Matrix have been based on it.

The question begs – are virtual worlds the harbingers of the end of society? Will, as most people fear the eventual march of technology result in environments so immersive, so powerful, and so socially disconnected that our species loses its ability and desire to interact, reproduce and perpetuate itself?  Will virtual worlds and their progeny result in the eventual death of civilization? Experience tells me that most people believe it will.

I disagree.

In fact, not only do I disagree, but I’m not worried in the least. The forward march of technology is an interesting dilemma.  Especially since, with each new invention things previously unimaginable become a reality opening the gateway to future inventions and technology so far beyond the scope of our current understanding that they are, by today’s standards, unfathomable. The side effect of this forward moving evolution is change.  Sometimes a change so fundamental, it re-shapes our very lives. Fire. The wheel. The written word.  Change can make the topic a very difficult one to explore, after all – change is scary or at the very least something that requires a transition period before it becomes comfortable. So, where is the fine line between what we’re afraid of because it’s new or different, and what we’re afraid of because it’s detrimental?

I believe the answer lies in our core nature as a species.  We are, fundamentally, social creatures.  We reach out, build communities, and seek out companionship.  We are not a-sexual and as such by our very biological makeup are hardwired to seek companionship.  Community is at the core of who we are, and our success as a species.  It powers our communities, which have enabled us to overcome great obstacles, eventually becoming the dominant form of life on earth.  It’s for that very reason that the thought of technology breaking down those social bonds is so alarming.  It’s also for that very reason that I’m not concerned. Humans – as a species – will always seek out other humans. In fact, the lengths we will go to are spectacular.  A point I am continually reminded of when I look at gamers behavior.

A few years ago when I was spending a lot of my time playing Everquest and other online games,,, I was constantly amazed at the lengths guild/group members would go to in order to meet each other in person.  It’s not uncommon for gaming guilds to hold meet-ups and while the lions share are more regionally oriented many are international in scope with members from all over the country (and world) flying in for small & medium sized face-to-face gatherings. There’s an important lesson here – even in one of the web’s most immersive environments people still reach out to each other.  Another example of the power of community presence is LAN parties where groups of 3 or more gather in one location and all play/chat/etc. for hours and in some cases days. At these events it’s not uncommon to have X people in a room silently focused on their screens for surprisingly long blocks of time without verbal interactions.  Despite their apparent lack of social interaction, they are using Skype-like technology to communicate with each other and others throughout the world, chatting constantly, and interacting in a rich world with their avatars.  So, why gather at all?  The comradship of being together.  The power and appeal of being in the presence of other humans and enjoying the face-to-face socialization that happens during downtime.  Again, these behaviors make it clear that as a species we thrive on, and hunger for, social interaction.  We are social creatures.

Confident in our social nature, I’m not concerned about the growing influence of technology because fundamentally we will always reach out to connect physically.  The dynamics may change, but the physical presence of someone, especially a romantic partner, is an experience that technology can’t duplicate.  In cases where it comes close it may temporarily satiate our needs, but ultimately even in these instances real world social interaction will always win out.  That’s why – to me – the fears about virtual world technology are a non-issue.

So, what happens if technology does move to the point where it can imitate and replace social interactions and the benefits of face-to-face interactions? That is the imagined matrix paradigm, a virtual reality so complete, real, and believable that you can’t tell the difference between it and the real world.  If, or rather when, technology evolves to the point where it is able to flawlessly imitate the real world, where does that leave us? Staunchly embedded and fiercely loyal to the world we know. It’s a scary thought, but realistically would that world be any less real, albeit different, than what we now classify as the “real world”?  Would it truly be a bad thing if it satiated all of our needs and fulfilled us every bit as completely as the “real world”? I don’t believe it would be bad.  In fact, at that point I believe it becomes every bit as real, valid and perhaps even essential as what we take for granted today.

So, are virtual worlds the harbingers of the end? If you believe that humans are fundamentally social animals and that we need that social interaction to survive, then your answer should be a confident no.  If, on the other hand, you do not believe that we are fundamentally social – what are you concerned about to begin with?

As always I value your feedback, thoughts and discussion.  Please take advantage of the comment feature below and share your thoughts!

Educating Millennials – Part II

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Blog Audio: Educating Millennials P2

This post is a follow up to my original post: Educating Millennials – Why We’re Doing It Wrong

Since it was posted Part I has received nearly 22,000 views and 80+ responses. At this point in time I think it’s safe to say I hit on a major issue…one we have only just begun to dive into. I’m thrilled by the reception the post received and the opportunity I’ve had to begin dialogue on the subject. The purpose of this post is to serve as an update and to work to clarify several points. Please take it as such.

On the subject of data – I’ve reached out to several government officials and other contacts within academic circles in an effort to locate source educational data to check my hypothesis. However, before I share an update on the progress/issues I’ve had with the data I want to address some background questions.

Background Information

My original post was made as a hypothesis based on observation. I am not an academic researcher, nor is it appropriate that I include all of my research & thoughts in these blog posts.  This is not a research site or news outlet. It is a blog and as such my posts must be limited in length and cannot be as in-depth as many of us might otherwise like. Nor am I a full time academic researcher affiliated with a research institution.  Rather, I’m a curious, passionate millennial observing the world around me, the way my fellows and I interact, and looking at alternative explanations.  It is a place for sharing observations, thoughts, and interesting information. It is my sincere hope that these thoughts and ideas will be picked up by my readership and pursued further.   As mentioned in my previous post, I am more than happy to discuss any concept expressed on this site further/privately.

The Sexes

I received a number of comments accusing me of sexism or being grossly mistaken about the distribution of the sexes in online environments, particularly the realm of video games. While, in most instances, it was obvious from the reader’s comments that several of my main points were missed, or they failed to read the post to its conclusion. I want to take a moment to address this concern. First, I am very well aware of the female presence in online gaming and on the web. I founded and lead one of the oldest/longest running online gaming guilds for 8 years. I am familiar with most of the statistics cited in the comments about web demographics. In fact, I used some of the very same data in my Honors Thesis which I completed a year and a half ago. That said, the male/female demographics of the online gaming community have changed exponentially in the last 3-5 years. That’s not to say that there have not been female gamers for as long as there have been games.  Rather, that the audience who grew up utilizing these games (from an early age) has – until recently – been mostly male and that as a result these individuals will be the most heavily effected.

In addition to the issue of demographics, research has shown that males and females relate differently in social situations.  That same research shows that conventional one-way, top-down, information exchanges like that in most classroom environments is more compatible with the learning styles of women.

The combination of these two factors – as previously explained – is part of why the topic focuses on males. The other part stems from the nature of the post as a response and alternative hypothesis to the commonly accepted arguments for why young males are under represented in higher education. The conventional arguments have revolved around a difference in capability between the sexes and are largely based on notable gender bias. The proposition in Part I of this post, if anything, is far from sexist.  Further, as I’ll discuss later in this topic, one of the greatest issues I’ve had with exploring the data is the lack of unbiased, relevant source data. Many of the official tables provide female percentages and numbers while neglecting their male counterparts.

The Author

Attacking the author is a fundamental part of Internet culture, a fact I completely understand.  While I did not want to spend much time on myself in the original post as I feel it distracts from the actual subject, my credibility and background seems to be a major, relevant, component for a number of readers. Some were concerned I was someone who hadn’t made the cut and wanted to justify my failure. Others assumed it was a complaint written by a frustrated millennial unable to find a job.  Several readers even suggested that my passion and focus for virtual technologies and their impact implied a lack of reading or cultural enrichment on my part. Others suggested that I must inherently suffer from a lack of social skills and connections.  While I’ve responded to each of these concerns independently in the comment section of the previous post I will briefly respond to each of the more frequent comments.

I actually preformed quite well in University. I graduated with a 3.38 GPA from Arizona State University with degrees from the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication and the Barrett Honors College.  My honors thesis is available for review on the blog roll to the right. It focused on MMOGs and their social impact. In High School I was engaged in the We The People constitutional debate program as well as a Key Club Officer. In addition to my academics, I come from, and grew up in a family heavily involved in academics.

Professionally, I have enjoyed significant success. In the spring of 2005 (summer of my sophomore year of college) I began an internship with the #3 commercial real estate company in the world. By the end of the summer the position grew into a part time position during the school year/full time job in the summer. I was with the company in various capacities (Research, Mapping, GIS, IT) until I graduated in 2007 when I was offered a full time position which I declined.  After a 3 month trip through Europe I returned to the states and immediately accepted a position as an Analyst with one of Arizona’s premiere mid-market mergers and acquisitions groups. In addition to my current position in the M&A industry, I founded the company FusionVirtual.

Socially I have regularly been referred to as a social node.  I’m lucky to enjoy an extensive social network all developed outside of the Greek system.  To use Facebook as a social benchmark, my friends list currently has over 600 contacts virtually all of whom I’m in semi-regular contact with. In fact, I periodically prune the list to keep it up to date and relevant.  To those with doubts, I can assure you I am both socially competent and active.

Culturally I have always enjoyed reading and have tested as post college since 6th grade. I enjoy regular reading, though my recent schedule has made me cut back significantly.  In addition to classic texts I enjoy poetry and the arts. I’ve seen theater on Broadway and in London, opera in Vienna and ballet in Prague. In addition to these experiences I’ve been an avid ballroom dancer for the last 4 years and salsa dance on a weekly basis. I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to travel extensively. I’ve been to Europe three times (once for a year, once for 3 months, and once for 6.5 weeks). I’ve also spent a year traveling across the U.S. and been to Alaska, Mexico and Hawaii.

It is important to point out that despite my background and life experiences, the observations raised about the educational system in Part I of this post are every bit as relevant for me as they are for other male millennials. I drilled down and forced myself to complete the higher ed process, but make no mistake, I found myself consciously making the decision to work within the system for the social validation and professional benefit that the degree “check mark” on job applications offered. The system did not serve my needs. It could have done more to challenge on multiple levels. In fact, it also did very little to prepare me for the real world.

So, to those of you who asked, I say;  No, this is not an apology. It’s not a justification.  It’s not an excuse. This is an observation of a failure by the education system. This failure has affected me personally and has affected a large number of my acquaintances and friends.  Read through the comments, look at what the young males of the millennial generation are telling us.

The tragedy is that we are squandering the potential of hundreds of thousands of America’s best and brightest, all because of bureaucracy and outdated tradition. All in a time when we need them the most.


It’s taken over a week for me to make this post in large part because I’ve been having difficulty tracking down relevant data. At this point in time, I’d love to be able to post a few graphs and several tables of data showing clear snapshots of what’s going on in our education system.  The unfortunate reality is, it doesn’t seem possible with the data available.  This would be a great graduate research project. As mentioned in my previous post, I’ve contacted the US Census Department, the US Department of Education, and IPEDS (The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System). I’ve also worked with several other contacts in trying to find/analyze the data in a way that gives real, relevant data.

It appears that the data collected by the U.S. Education System is in such a confused state and so poorly documented that it’s nearly impossible to find standard enrollment and completion numbers broken up by sex and institution type and relative to U.S. population statistics by year.  The data has been gathered and stored in such a way that anything beyond micro analysis is nearly impossible for the casual researcher. If you have information relevant to the discussion please post it in a comment or forward it to me and I’ll add it to the post. Additionally, if you do any statistical analysis please share your results and methodology with us.

Noteworthy Data:

  1. Degrees conferred by degree-granting institutions, by level of degree and sex of student: Selected years, 1869-70 through 2016-17
  2. Total fall enrollment in degree-granting institutions, by attendance status, sex of student, and control of institution: Selected years, 1947 through 2005
  3. Historical Educational Attainment Reports from 1940 through 1998
  4. US 1990 Census: Population Figures
  5. US 2000 Census: Population Figures
  6. US 2007 Census: Population Figures

Things to note:

  • There is a major data shift in 1995.
  • Enrollment figures provide a % female, but no mention of a % male.
  • Enrollment figures fail to distinguish between the gender breakdown in full/part time categories.
  • Enrollment figures fail to distinguish between higher education programs.
  • Degrees conferred can not be accurate compared to enrollment data.
  • Degrees conferred are not broken down by type of institution, only level of education*.
  • Population figures: I was unable to locate credible year-by-year projections. Only US Census data by year was publicly available. The 2007 figures were generated through a private information vendor and forwarded to me.
  • Population figures: Should be adjusted based on generational differences in population.

*This is relevant because of the widespread success of web-based Universities like University of Phoenix. If included in the above material (which I believe they are) these web-based Universities have been extremely popular over the last 8+ years. The type of education these programs offer (web-based) is drastically different from the class method and environment utilized in major colleges and universities. As a result, I’m concerned that these may offset significant shifts in the brick and mortar institutions this article focuses on.

*EDIT* – Just saw this and feel it’s very relevant given my mention of University of Phoenix above. UofP was ranked as the #1 recipient of federal assistance/aid for FY 2008. According to the list, Arizona based University of Phoenix has received $2,810,085,079 in aid so far in this fiscal year.

Closing Thoughts

Ultimately the data is important, but may be more of a distraction. The theory discussed herein is nothing new. We’ve known since the days of Aristotle and Socrates that instructor-student interactions are the best way to learn. As humans we learn best when we can interact, exchange thoughts, and question. After all, what is a question but the search for information and clarity? When the written word was invented we transformed the way knowledge was shared from the telling of stories to a system of written words. Modern technology allows us to increase the level of interaction between student and professor.  It offers the potential to make the material more engaging, informative, and to increase students’ investment in their education. Sadly, that scares a lot of people. Luckily, the demand for multi-level delivery systems will continue to grow until educators respond.  While we can disagree on some of the details and the execution, ultimately ask yourself if a more interactive, ‘immersive’, and vibrant educational experience will be good for the students.  If your answer is yes, I urge you to stop making excuses for a system that no longer works as-is. I ask that you help work toward a modern, 21st century educational system.

Each day we wait another brilliant mind falls through the cracks.

As always, I value your feedback and will respond to all user comments. Please share your thoughts, reflections, and any additional information you might have in a comment on this post.

*If you’ve enjoyed this post and want to share, please vote for the post on reddit/digg/delicious using the links below and help me spread the word.

*EDIT* I was just linked this amazing video by Mike Wesch which really does an amazing job hitting on/discussing some of the same issues.

Educating Millennials – Why We’re Doing it Wrong

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Audio: Educating Millennials, We are Doing it Wrong

An educated populace is the cornerstone of a successful, affluent culture and a necessity if the United States wants to remain competitive. Our education system is the framework that enables and prepares America’s youths to support, lead, and drive America’s future.  Education, more than any other factor, is responsible for America’s success. It is for that reason that the current shift in enrollment and completion rates among males in higher education may be seen as a crisis. It is immensely disturbing and potentially disastrous.