Felix Writes: Old men, new ways

DigitalThoughts / Old men, new ways

I've recently read the transcription of an excellent speech about education versus thinking, and bureaucracy versus leadership. Starting with a great account of the fundamental problems with corporate culture, continuing with examples of how things can be better and finishing with a suggested way to get there, it's an inspiring, refreshing read, even though it doesn't contain much that is new or surprising. Unfortunately, in the second half the author starts to sound like a rambling old man who doesn't get all this newfangled communication technology, and this is the part I want to address.

See, recently there has been this buzz about the fact that multitasking impairs productivity, a conclusion apparently supported by multiple recent studies. And I don't doubt for a moment that these conclusions are accurate. But while Mr. Deresiewicz -- the author of the aforementioned speech -- uses them as a basis to slam YouTube and iPods and Twitter and Facebook, I say this is a major case of missing the point.

First, while it's true that when multitasking you perform each individual task more slowly, you also make progress faster overall. Your computer is the same; if you think running many programs at the same time makes it slow, try installing a single-tasking operating system, such as FreeDOS, and watch in horror as it suddenly becomes even slower. That's because the computer, just like a human, can't use its time with 100% efficiency; there are all kinds of waiting times that regularly stop it dead. A multitasking operating system such as Linux or MacOS X will let other tasks run during those waiting times, so in the end the system will be more productive, not less, even when taking overhead into account. Same with you.

Second, what does multitasking have to do with not thinking? Mr. Deresiewicz rambles at length about that, and I just don't get it. When I need to think, it's easy enough to turn off the computer and go for a walk. And yes, that's a very important thing to do regularly. But here's the trick: nobody's stopping you. That grey box by your desk? Just a tool. The Internet? Likewise. If some people have forgotten how to go out, listen to birds sing, smell the flowers, watch the sun rise or simply have a beer with friends, that's their problem. Besides, there is a time to think, and a time to act, and when it comes to action, my tools make me a lot more effective than some old man with pen, paper and a printed encyclopedia.

Third, and that relates to my second point above, I have to respectfully disagree that great writers necessarily write slowly, or little. Mihail Sadoveanu's novel Baltagul was famously written in only two weeks. Also, quality and quantity aren't mutually exclusive, let alone inversely proportional. If they were, the world's greatest literary works would be haikus. Let's be honest: Ernest Hemingway's famous six-word story ("For sale: baby shoes, never worn.") might have been his favorite according to legend, but it's not what he's remembered for. And while The Old Man and the Sea is just under novel length, James Joyce's Ulysses seems to hover around the length of two or three typical novels -- different editions vary a lot -- and apparently it was written in two years and a half, not seven. (Then again, Frankenstein was written in almost a year, not two weeks. Urban legends are funny that way.) Incidentally, Mr. Deresiewicz calls Ulysses the greatest novel of the 20th century. Really now? Nothing better came up in the remaining 78 years? Allow me to nominate J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Oh wait, it's way too long at 1200 pages. But at least it was written in 12 years. That should be slow enough.

So I say, yes, learn to think for yourself, learn to focus well when necessary, know what you stand for -- and stand for it. But don't let an old man tell you how to work. After all, as a great leader of the (business) world reputedly said, real artists ship. And I bet Steve Jobs uses computers a lot.

2010-07-20