In his book Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert quipped that the sentence "[WHATEVER I STUDY] is what makes us human" is one that scientists can't avoid; they know they should, but they just can't help themselves. I just came across another entry in that sweepstakes: UCLA professor Monica Smith's 2010 book, A Prehistory of Ordinary People. From the UCLA press room:
The abundance of contemporary distractions offers many reasons to curse multitasking.
But... Monica L. Smith maintains that human beings should appreciate their ability to sequence many activities and to remember to return to a task once it has been interrupted, possibly even with new ideas on how to improve the activity.... In fact, Smith, an associate professor of anthropology, contends that the multitasking is the ability that separates human beings from animals: "Multitasking is what makes us human....
"People seem to think that the past was this simpler time with fewer interruptions because so many of the modern gadgets we have today had yet to be invented.... But we've been multitasking from the beginning. Every object that we have from the past is the result of a dynamic process where people were being interrupted all the time."...
Smith finds support for her theory by combining research from two fields. From archaeology, she takes the calculations extracted from archaeological digs to determine the number of people who occupied prehistoric sites and the kinds of human activities that were undertaken there — such as making tools, pots and beads. From anthropological studies of traditional people today, she takes estimates of how long it takes to make similar objects using similar approaches.
"We can calculate how much prehistoric people needed to eat, how long it takes to do a particular kind of task, and any seasonal restrictions on different tasks," Smith said. "We find that there's no way that you could sit down and do any of these things from start to finish. Multitasking had to be involved."
Multitasking also makes sense from a biological perspective, Smith argues, citing recent research by economists, folklorists, neurologists and archaeologists. Researchers have noted that the type of cognitive shortcuts involved in multitasking extends the number of activities humans can accomplish without having to tap higher-order cognitive abilities such as reasoning.
Again, this is an example of "multitasking" meaning something rather different when used by archaeologists than by, say, experimental psychologists or Nicholas Carr: the cases she's talking about do involve switching attention between tasks, but at a temporal scale rather different than we have to deal with in digital environments.