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Gambit Weekly The Multiplexed

By Joab Jackson

SEPTEMBER 15, 1997:  Ever wonder how personal computers reshape personalities? I pondered that while downloading a shareware version of the web browser Opera.

By current standards, Opera is pretty crude -- it has only a fraction of the features of the latest Netscape or Microsoft Explorer. But in one very crucial sense, Opera lords it over its more popular brethren: it can open more than one web page at a time.

In fact, this browser can load up to six screens simultaneously. I was very excited by this; I had felt trapped by Explorer. I have approximately seven minutes to eat my Wheaties each morning, and -- geek that I am -- I eat them in front of my computer while scanning through online news sites like Wired News, The Wall Street Journal, Netly News and NewsPage. It takes precious seconds to load each separately. Opera can load them all at once, and I can pick over everything they have to offer at my leisure.

So as Opera downloaded, and as I perused The New Yorker cartoons and Brian Eno's "Here Come the Warm Jets" played in the background, it struck me as most unusual that something like a multiscreen browser would even be considered desirable. After all, not too long ago I found dealing with one screen intimidating. Now, I'm chafing at all the time lost by that singular approach.

Many people I know who spend most of their days in front of computers suffer the same affliction -- this constant craving for more information. A friend told me that some years back he realized he was becoming discontented with watching television. The entertainment wasn't coming fast enough for him; the "scroll" rate seemed too slow. During commercials or the slow bits of whatever he was watching, he picked up books or magazines. Then came the radio, which he also monitored while watching TV. He dates this habit from when he bought his second computer -- which he purchased because it was much quicker than the first.

Could this be called "multitasking" for the mind? "Multitasking" meaning, as defined by The IBM Dictionary of Computing, "a mode of operation that provides for concurrent performance, or interleaved execution of two or more tasks."

Another friend refuses to use the word "multitasking" to describe what he does. A Net jockey by any measure, he looked up during one Internet session and found he had nine different copies of Netscape opened on his computer screen. Still, he tells me, "You could argue that multitasking with nine browsers is still doing one thing -- it's just doing it at increasingly complex levels."

Maybe, but even this explanation is congruent with the idea of multitasking. The Condensed Computer Encyclopedia's entry on multitasking points out that "processor multiplexing implements only quasiparallelism" -- meaning that when a computer multitasks, it only presents the illusion of two things going on simultaneously. In fact, at any given moment, the processor is handling only the thing that most demands the user's attention. Home computers seem like they're doing two things at once -- say, downloading a file while you play FreeCell -- only because they've become so speedy at juggling instructions.

Perfecting this minuet of tasks is all-important to the computer-savvy. "I think it's scary how much I seem to organize myself like a computer," said Bennett Haselton, webmaster of the Peacefire site.

"I have class notes next to my computer monitor so that I can pick them up for a few seconds and hammer something into my memory while I'm waiting for my slow computer to open a program," Haselton said. "I leave windows of unread email open on my screen so that while I'm waiting for an application to finish something else in the background, I can bring the mail window to the top and get it read. I keep a list of long-term and short-term jobs according to priority, with jobs moving higher up through the list as the deadline approaches." In computer terminology, Haselton said, this is called "resource allocation."

It would be ridiculous to assume this is all the doing of computers. It would be far more useful to ask what is happening to our society that drives such multiplicity.

"It's as if modern life is a narcotic -- we need more and more," said James Gleick, the author of Chaos: Making of a New Science. He is writing a new book on modern life's frantic and fragmented pace. His web page asks for stories from people who find themselves "multitasking in odd ways."

Gleick warns that "it takes discipline to remember that some fine activities -- reading and listening to music among them -- cannot be multitasked and in fact are destroyed by the effort to multitask."

I heartily agree. I resolve to take time this weekend to actually read that New Yorker and maybe get around to listening to the copy of the Brandenberg Concertos I bought a few months back.

Maybe I can even do both at the same time.

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