Are we multitasking ourselves into chaos?

Information technology professionals generally eat their own dog food. That is, as a group, we practice what we preach. Go to any place where IT people gather, and you'll see the latest and greatest in communications devices -- phones, pagers and various input/output hardware.

I have always been of two minds, though, when it comes to the "always on/always available" issue. On the one hand, I have come to rely on Wi-Fi in airports.

On the other hand, I have resisted using a BlackBerry or similar device because I already feel that I am in touch so much of the time.

But because of the great complexity around us, we make less-than-perfect decisions -- decisions that are bounded by our own inability to consider an infinite number of factors.

But where are the boundaries? I've noticed lately that it seems to have become quite acceptable to send instant messages to others in the middle of meetings. Many hard-working IT professionals attend conferences. At these events, attendees are often given the opportunity to sit in on as many as six or seven speaker sessions a day on a variety of complex topics. It's becoming common to see half the audience typing away on their computer screens while purportedly listening to the speaker. Since many of these events are now set up with wireless access, attendees can be connected to their offices during sessions.

Now, it's certainly possible that the dedicated IT professionals are using their PCs to take notes. My own informal survey suggests, however, that this is rarely the case. Rather, most of the screens I've eyeballed show that their owners are answering e-mail, working on projects or even playing solitaire.

Is it really possible to multitask effectively enough to pay attention to a speaker while participating in one or several e-mail or IM dialogues as well? Perhaps it is, but my gut tells me that bounded rationality kicks in at some point.

Are we multitasking ourselves into chaos? Are we doing so many things at once that we do none well? Or am I just missing some genetic mutation that enables some folks to thrive amid chaos?

Barbara Gomolski, a former Computerworld reporter, is a vice president at Gartner, where she focuses on IT financial management

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