Cordwainer Smith was the pseudonym for Dr. Paul Linebarger when he wrote science fiction. Smith's sf was among the most mold-breaking and mind-expanding in the genre. His stories wrestled with the intersections of religion and technology, wealth and slavery, sensation and madness. Back in my high school days I read all the Cordwainer Smith that I could get my hands on, and although there was a lot in it that I couldn't understand, I knew it was important to try. The Planet Buyer, The Game of Rat and Dragon, The Ballad of Lost C'mell, ... they were hyperbolic parables, beyond escape velocity.

Cordwainer Smith came to mind again the other day, as a friend talked about the advantages of an exercise machine over jogging outdoors. You can pedal away while listening to music, watching TV, talking on the phone, reading a newspaper, or any of a dozen other simultaneous things. Yep ... and I suddenly remembered a character named Jestocost, one of the Lords of the Instrumentality, who in a critical encounter with a telepathic adversary had to hold one thing in his consciousness, say something else, and simultaneously do a completely different act. "Triple Thinking", Cordwainer Smith called it. A clever plot device.

So while I handle a telephone call I am also instant messaging any number of buddies and still keeping an eye on the news ticker. And the other people are in turn doing it to me. Invisible impoliteness, writ large. And the quality of our "conversations"? Don't ask.

In the context of an overworked, dysfunctional organization, some years ago a colleague noted that people aren't actually good at rapid context switching --- and that's the key act behind all multitasking. We may fool ourselves into imagining that we're doing a variety of complex things "all at once", but we're really just jumping among them, the same way that a single-processor computer has to do.

And as my comrade also observed, "No matter how fine you slice it there are still only 168 hours in a week." Fragmenting attention lowers total productivity, even if it gives the illusion of action on a multiplicity of projects.

There is, however, one thing that human timesharing does seem to be good at creating: stress.

So don't ask me to run on a treadmill or pump away on a stationary bicycle. I'd rather just ramble through the woods and watch what's around me ....

TopicLiterature - TopicRunning - TopicThinking - 2002-07-25

(correlates: HerodotusOnWarAndPeace, FutureLiteracy, Comments on ImpossibleStandards, ...)