Is Multitasking a Myth?

A Rhetorical Analysis

Life isn’t the same today as it was 20 years ago. Society evolves constantly. As modern needs in the workplace, in studies and in common life increase, the pace quickens. Computers, smartphones, and other breakthroughs in technology allow us to organize and process data at incredible speeds, and by tackling many tasks at once, we somehow manage to get the job done. In the article The Myth of Multitasking, Christine Rosen takes a practical look at this phenomena, and singles out some of its dangers. Her readers are invited to examine the evidence in support of her claims, and then devolve to handling daily tasks one at a time. She argues that the cons of multitasking far outweigh the benefits by making a heavy appeal to her audience’s trust in authority, and logical reasoning. She is largely persuasive, but some readers may be left unimpressed and resist the change.

It should be noted that Rosen is a writer and senior editor of The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology & Society. She is not well known, but has written a handful of books and several articles about social issues and technology. As such, most readers will not have pre-conceptions based on the credentials of the author. Because The Myth of Multitasking was published in this online journal, the intended audience is likely those of the millennial generation, who are most exposed to and involved in the issue presented. This audience can range from those in their late teens to early thirties, though it can be argued that readers on the younger end of this spectrum are more prone to the multitasking problem. Herein lies the challenge that Rosen faces in her article: she must convince those involved to recognize the negative impact of multitasking, and motivate them to resist it. By targeting such a general audience, it is expected that some will receive her writing differently than others.

Rosen presents her argument with a quote by the noble Lord Chesterfield, a man revered for wisdom in mentoring, but dishonored by his lack of virtue. She claims that singular focus is a mark of intelligence and superiority. Here there is a draw to those who thirst for wisdom and prestige. Chesterfield’s words provoke thought (by appearing so counterintuitive) and thus relate best to the intellectual type. For those who are swayed most by emotion, Rosen then gives an emotionally-charged retelling of the recent shift towards multitasking in our culture. Many can relate to the apparent “exuberance” of successful multitaskers in a time when such a trait was considered a prowess, and each new iPhone was equipped with improved multitasking abilities. Much of this attitude still holds today, especially among young people. However, the author doesn’t let emotions run high for long, before making her attack by relating the glorified multitasking to the condemned practice of texting while driving. For the logically minded, she mentions an apparent correlation between multitasking (now called distraction) and a dramatic drop in IQ scores. Her argument is made clear when she quotes Dr. Edward Hallowell to state that such a skill is a myth, and by attempting to develop it we minimize productivity. By now, nobody can miss the author’s contempt for the multitasking fad.

This is all done in the first part of Rosen’s article. In these five paragraphs, she appeals to an audience of wide interests using logos, pathos, and ethos. She is successful at this point, because she quickly poses her argument and convinces readers to consider her claims. Her reasons come from a wide variety of sources, and she only assumes that her audience is familiar with pop-culture. Being an online article, this assumption isn’t too far-fetched. However, from here Rosen begins a new section of her article with a slightly different focus. She examines an extended list of scientific evidence to justify her claims. Perhaps this is an attempt to solidify her argument, and convince her audience, but this portion of the article doesn’t have the same impact as the first.

The author now begins to make these additional claims in support of her argument. She tells readers that the brain’s task-switching is slow, that kids exposed to excessive media won’t do well in the long run, and that humans are just “not built to work this way; [they’re] really built to focus.” Her reasoning in these paragraphs is completely derived from scientific studies and research. She cites at least eight articles written by accredited scientists that support her claims. In fact, she really shares their claims, and uses them to support her own argument. This heavy ethos appeal is very persuasive to the parents, instructors and leaders of the rising generation. Those responsible adults recognize the importance of the matter and may try to limit distractions as a result. However, the group that is most involved in the issue is the youth. They are the ones who are surrounded by smartphones, computers, TV, radio, smart watches, and the ones who will have to make the biggest change in order to satisfy Rosen’s purpose in writing. To those who are used to reading quickly and getting to the point, this extended list of journal and doctor’s names is just a bore, and distraction will quickly take hold on their minds. Rosen ends this section of her article in a foreboding tone, warning of a deficit-ridden future generation. But the pioneers of that very generation have probably stopped paying attention, or already put the book down.

Although Rosen may have missed the mark with some younger readers, the adults who would call themselves problem-fixers are now compelled by staggering evidence to agree with her argument. Her next move is to make a call to action. If a woman at a gym says out-loud that it is impressive that a man can bench-press 225 pounds, there is an unspoken challenge to every man in the room to lift 225 pounds. In the final section of her essay, the author speaks of the ability to pay attention. This is something you can control: a skill you can master. She points the reader’s thoughts to greatness, and quotes the words of Isaac Newton, a well-known genius who once considered his success as “owing more to patient attention than to any other talent.” This is an unspoken challenge. Rosen wants to inspire us to act, and make a conscious effort to focus attention on whatever task is at hand. The invitation to do so is only fortified by what follows. The ability to bring back wandering attention is claimed to be illustrative of character, and held by a mature mind. This effectively persuades the reader to develop their attention span. Most people want to be related to words such as “maturity,” “willpower,” and “greatness,” and so will make an effort to meet the qualifications of such words in the eyes of others. Those who have made it this far in the article should now feel a desire to make a change in their lives. Those who view the problem from above (the mentors) will want to help those who find themselves stuck in distraction. Throughout her writing, Rosen claims that by cutting back on multitasking, we are doing a service to society at large, and contributing to the common good. Her audience wants to be the do-gooders now.

The author concludes her writing by depicting the potential future of our world as one where technology takes control, due to our lack of focus and mental stamina. This alludes to sci-fi horror stories and post-apocalyptic tales of the slavery of mankind. In this moving scene, she pleads with us not to let that happen. With pathos in mind, she then proposes another possible future: one where humans have become irrational, senseless zombies who live their lives to the drone of endless distraction. In this future, people never mature and are always divided in their attention among miniscule tasks. Culture is destroyed, and individual well-being is diminished. Surely Rosen is crying out to the young generation — which she specifically mentions in her final paragraph — to put an end to this disaster.

In The Myth of Multitasking, Christine Rosen argues that distracting ourselves with modern media (whether intended for entertainment or for productivity) is all too common and detrimental to productivity. But she also argues that readers everywhere should do something about it! Her effectiveness varies by the reader. She appears to attempt to target a very wide audience by using varied appeals to make the same claims. However, this article is most persuasive to an audience that may not have as great as an influence for change. Her use of rhetoric is effective and convincing to a more mature audience, but the inefficiency lies in an excess of factual evidence that might seem daunting or disorientating to a reader with a shorter attention span. Her intentions are clear, and her evidence is sound, but more must be done to truly tackle the problem at hand. Many will need to be convinced in another way.