Howard Rheingold: Multiplexing vs. Multitasking – the Human Computer Interface Enhancing or Degrading?

Cultural Intelligence, IO Impotency
Howard Rheingold
Howard Rheingold

While Google Glass is what most of the world hears about wearable info-devices these days, Steve Mann and Thad Starner were experimenting with (much bulkier!) wearable devices at the Media Lab more than a decade ago. I interviewed Tharner back then. He had a head-mounted display and he also communicated wirelessly with his networks through a one-handed keyboard (“twiddler”), sometimes asking questions about conversations he was engaged in face to face. In this blog post, Kevin Kelly picks out a key passage from an interview with Starner in a book by Michael Chorost. While Cliff Nass’ work pretty clearly showed that most (not all!) media multitaskers were degrading rather than enhancing their performance on their tasks, Nass, in conversation with me, noted that he had NOT studies instances in which the multitaskers were working with multiple relevant information streams. Starner calls this multiplexing. We need more research about whether everybody can learn to do this and whether it enhances or degrades performance.

Multiplexing vs Multitasking

Thad Starner is one of several pioneers who have been personally experimenting with continuous visual input devices, sometime called wearable computing. To most people it looks like he has a screen attached to his eyeball. Starner wore his for years (as has others like Steve Mann, who started doing this earlier). They are living the dream/nightmare of being on the web 24/7, even while walking. So what is it like?


The main question: If your brain is connected to the internet, can you think of anything else? Michael Chorost interviewed Starner (below) in World Wide Mind: The Coming Integration of Humanity, Machines, and the Internet, p.142,160) As far as I can tell, research with the population at large to date suggests that our ability to multitask is not as great as we think it is. In other worlds, when we multitask we do less well on more tasks. When Chorost asked him about this, Starner makes an interesting counter claim:

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