Multitasking as Epistemic Injustice

Multitasking is considered a premium job skill, a sign of productivity in both job candidates and job holders. But the psychological evidence is clear: In extreme cases, multitasking is impossible, essentially leading the mind to a kind of paralysis. In less extreme cases, multitasking is a drag on productivity that imposes significant psychological costs. In general, multitasking is a thoroughly bad idea.

I don’t dispute that there are some jobs where multitasking is sometimes necessary. If so, one can’t coherently object to it. But both common sense and psychological evidence suggest that the need for multitasking is exaggerated, as is multitaskers’ capacity to do it well. Multitasking is neither as necessary as is often contended, nor as effectively done as is often claimed. There’s more bluffing than truth involved on both counts.

Demanding that someone multitask on the job is, I conclude, often an injustice, primarily an epistemic injustice, but usually more than that. An epistemic injustice, to use Miranda Fricker’s now-famous phrase, is one “in which someone is wronged specifically in their capacity as a knower.” The demand to multitask is at least that: it adversely affects the would-be multitasker’s capacity to think clearly enough about any given task to be able to do it properly. But it’s worse than that. In paralyzing the multitasker’s mind, the demand to multitask undermines the multitasker’s efficacy and/or mastery over the task, too.

You don’t, in this light, have to be a Marxist to regard the demand to multitask as a recipe for alienation. The demand for multitasking is the demand for a permanently divided self incapable of completing any single task, or at least of completing it in any reasonable time. The demand for a divided self is essentially a demand to get rid of the self. So is the demand that the self seldom complete a task that it begins.

The injustice involved is depicted with vivid and prescient accuracy in Kurt Vonnegut’s sci-fi story “Harrison Bergeron.” In it, Vonnegut imagines a society ca. 2081 that enforces egalitarianism by inserting “little mental handicap radios” into the ears (and minds) of particularly intelligent or inquisitive citizens: “Every twenty seconds or so, the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains.” Everyone is equal in this imagined society because everyone is, through cognitive handicapping, rendered equally incapable of thought. Cognitive handicapping is, of course, a form of multitasking through the enforced imposition of divided attention. 

While the “Handicappers” of Vonnegut’s story handicap their victims for egalitarian ends, multitasking is, in our society, an instrument of inegalitarianism. C-suite executives typically enjoy the luxury of focused, single-minded attention on their work from within locked, soundproof offices. Their subordinates, by contrast, work under conditions of divided attention bordering on chaos—chaos that demands multitasking.

Prescription: There ought to be a strong presumption against multitasking in the workplace–and, I’m inclined to think, in most other places. Reliance on it should, absent clear evidence to the contrary, be regarded as an irresponsible form of understaffing, and prima facie evidence of employers’ lack of commitment to productivity, merit, and well-being–the values they supposedly prize.

In more practical terms: Instead of putting, say, office workers in open cubicles where they’re forced to work while fighting the ubiquitous distractions of noise and interruption, such workers should, like their “superiors,” have the functional equivalent of individual offices. In this respect, the corporate workplace has something to learn from academia. In the “real world,” real work requires real peace and quiet, the paradigm of which is found in the quietest section of a university library. Genuinely productive offices would approximate that, not the circus atmosphere they actually exhibit. Considering the absurdity of the demands they make on and expectations they have of their employees, it’s the corporate C-suite that inhabits an “ivory tower,” not the average academic.

But don’t expect the C-suite to grasp such obvious realities any time soon. Too many people are, at this point, too invested in the virtues of multitasking to see it as a vice, or to do what it takes to eliminate it from the workplace.

The standard excuse, of course, will be cost: it costs too much to turn cubicles into offices, or make offices quieter. I guess we’d have to run the numbers to be sure, but I have my doubts.

For one thing, even on a very narrowly consequentialist reckoning, it might be that the monetized gains in productivity from abandoning multitasking exceed the outlays involved in making a transition to a single-minded workplace. If so, the envisioned anti-multitasking reform is a no-brainer.

Even if that’s not true, the non-monetary gains in well-being might be worth it, and might still be compatible with a healthy bottom line. In that case, I’d say that the envisioned reform, though admittedly less lucrative, still remains worth trying.

But maybe I’m wrong. It’s possible, I suppose, that the costs involved in eliminating multitasking and creating the conditions for single-tasking are so enormous that there’s no way to minimize, much less eliminate, the multitasking that we demand of the average worker at the average workplace. In that case, I suppose, we just have to admit that our society and economy are founded on ineliminable epistemic injustice—a thought to be interrupted, no doubt, by one that negates it by demanding that we think about something else.

2 thoughts on “Multitasking as Epistemic Injustice

  1. There are jobs that require one to respond to crises as they arise, and return to less important tasks afterward; in those jobs multitasking is necessary, and those who can do it well are valued. Then there are jobs that require one to focus on a single problem until it’s done, disregarding all interruptions; in those jobs multitasking has no value, and those who can do it well have no advantage. And the gifts of single-minded attention and quick response to problems are almost never found in the same person.

    I rather think that the fad for cubicle farms and open-plan offices (for it is a fad, not a rational response to incentives) will be killed by the push for telework, which is considerably cheaper than sticking clerical workers in refurbished warehouses (never mind building personal offices for everyone.) After all, if you’re working from home, there’s no possibility of being interrupted by a coworker talking in the next cubicle over; there is no next cubicle! Single-minded attention becomes much easier to sustain when you’re miles away from your fellow employees.

    If anything the danger is that the jobs which do need quick response to crises will be neglected as telework takes hold.

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    • There are jobs that require one to respond to crises as they arise, and return to less important tasks afterward; in those jobs multitasking is necessary, and those who can do it well are valued.

      That is less a case of multitasking than of prioritizing: doing one task at a time within the context of others that have to be done, each task weighted by priority. Multitasking is a matter of doing several things at once, without order as to priority–or, alternatively, treating every task as though it had the “highest” priority. The “capacity” to multitask in this chaotic sense is also highly valued, despite the fact that no one can successfully pull it off. It’s done by piling the jobs of >1 person on a single person, expecting quality results, expressing disappointment when they don’t materialize, firing the failed employee for “incompetence (at multitasking),” and then repeating exactly the same process on the next hire.

      Yes, there are jobs that require multitasking in that sense–i.e., doing many things at once–and jobs that forbid it. There are also jobs that are tendentiously described so as to seem to require multitasking when they don’t. The most common way is to start by under-staffing your enterprise, then by under-investing in it, then by manufacturing “crises” that require the “immediate attention” of an overburdened staff. That’s the stage at which the magic of “multitasking” makes its entrance. If everyone just “multitasks,” it’s thought, everything will be all right.

      Remote work is fine for those who are circumstanced to take advantage of it. But not everyone is. Those who aren’t have to show up at the job site, and my point applies to them. In any case, remote work is not the panacea it’s often made out to be. If you live in close proximity to other people in a crowded apartment, you don’t need to be interrupted by a co-worker one cubicle over. Your roommate will do. Or his dog. Etc. Home is often as ill-conducive to work as the job site, and for similar reasons.

      And while I happened to focus on office work, my point was more general than that: an OR nurse who’s being asked to clean the OR after a surgical case while charting the case is being asked to multitask in just the sense I have in mind. You can clean an OR, or you can chart a surgical case, but outside of a comedy skit, you can’t do both at once in the time allotted to doing one. That doesn’t stop directors from making the demand. Staying home won’t help there, or in a dozen cases like it.

      I wasn’t suggesting that companies literally build offices for everyone on par with the inhabitants of the C-suite. Academic libraries often have enclosed cubicles. Enclosed cubicles–and the adoption of a different workplace ethos–would be sufficient.

      Finally, I would question your use of the term “crisis” in the context of, say, ordinary office work for an ordinary company. Many of the “crises” involved are manufactured, and few of them are genuine “crises.” Compared with what happens in a genuine life-and-death emergency of the sort one encounters as a first responder or in a hospital, most of these “crises” are conspicuous for their triviality. Compared with what happens in the hospital itself, the “crises” of hospital revenue management are the stuff of comedy, not crisis.

      So it is across a lot of corporate life. “Crisis” is often a synonym for “confabulation.” It reminds me of a song by The Who.

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