The economics of multitasking

Expanding on Dana’s post from last week about multitasking and the responding clamor of “I can’t stand to do less than two things at once”: Is book-reading on the decline because we literally have better things to do with our time?

I basically don’t read books. I’ve finished about 10 books since getting my English degree four years ago; three of them were young-adult fantasies and two were graphic novels.

This is common. About 42 percent of college grads never read another book, supposedly. This 2004 study by the National Endowment for the Arts found that the number of American adults who claim to read books fell from 61 to 57 percent between 1992 and 2002 (actual numbers are obviously much lower).

In place of books, I get most of my words from newspaper Web sites, podcasts, vodcasts and the radio, usually while I’m doing other things. When I’m reading a book, by contrast, it’s almost impossible for me to do anything else.

This puts books at a serious disadvantage. Yes, reading a book gives you a depth of knowledge you can’t get elsewhere — but in my experience, knowledge has diminishing returns. I’m better off as a jack-of-all-info. And every minute I spend reading a book is another minute in which I’m not accomplishing two other things.

In economic terms, book-readers face rising opportunity costs.

-posted by Mike


9 Responses to The economics of multitasking

  1. Dana says:

    About 42 percent of college grads never read another book, supposedly.

    What a horrendously depressing thought. I mean, I know I like to read more than the average person, but seriously? What do those people do on planes? At the beach? Waiting at the doctor’s office?

    This reminds me of my dad’s story about his childhood realization that not all people liked to read. This came when his Boy Scout leader expressed his opinion that reading was a waste of time. My dad never knew there were people like that before. (I’d let him tell the story himself, but he’s at the beach this week. With at least 4 new books that he bought yesterday. I’m jealous. Stupid job.)

    One of the things I’ve found I’m enjoying most about my post-school life is how much time I do find to read books, and now it can be books of all kinds. I can go from fiction to nonfiction and back again as I please, and follow whatever trail of knowledge I wish. Maybe the key is that I’m not as concerned with all of my knowledge being timely news-related knowledge? I really don’t think I’m ready to agree with you that book readers are going to fall behind in the economy of knowledge.

  2. Mike says:

    Maybe it’s worth noting, by the way, that podcast/vodcast content tends to be of higher value than radio/TV content, because I can access my desired topic on demand. This is an advantage over broadcast media that print media once enjoyed, but now lack.

    By the same token, the falling costs of distributing broadcast TV have led to more cable stations, which also tends to raise the value of the content, because I have more stations to choose from. It’s natural that this would lead Americans to spend more time with the TV, as indeed it has.

    These are the main variables, I think: falling TV distribution costs and increased chances to time-shift your consumption of audio information.

    As for your comment, Dana, you make a good point that different information is valuable to different people. Some people will only get what they’re after in books, and they’ll continue to choose books. I’m just saying the aggregate economics are shifting.

    Note, though, that I’m not just talking about news here; a good chunk of my podcast time is non-news stuff like This American Life, In Our Time and EconTalk.

  3. Jennie says:

    Dude, you’re still reading, just not reading books. Part of the problem with these statistics is that it only counts as reading if you read books. But if I read only middle-grade children’s fiction and you read the Economist from cover to cover, who’s doing more in depth reading?

    My husband and I once talked about this as he commented that I read a lot more than he does. But he reads the entire A section of the Washington Post every morning. He reads most of the Economist and large sections of the Guardian and so many articles it makes my head spin. I read YA chicklit. But mine “counts” because it’s in a bound, book format.

    My guess is that you actually spend the bulk of your day reading, just not books.

    I read a lot because I like to, and because I have to for work. Also, I’ve figured out way to multi-task while reading. I eat and read. I walk and read (but only in the house–but I can walk a few miles while reading by doing laps from the front door to the back). And, because I’m awesome, I can knit and read, a skill that really helped in college. I read on the metro. I read at the doctor’s office. I read on the toilet. I read in the bathtub…

  4. Mike says:

    I can knit and read

    Yes, that is awesome.

    I actually seldom finish long magazine articles, either. I’d say that all demanding, in-depth writing is increasingly challenged — anything I need my entire brain to absorb, basically.

    Even so, thanks for sticking up for my continued reading habits, Miz Librarian.

  5. TheGnat says:

    See, I disagree with placing different values on various reading materials. Certainly, the newspapers will provide me with current event information, but my fantasy novels provide me with a pleasant escape, and even translated manga frequently challenge my perspective.

    My reading definitely went up after leaving Grinnell (I am still in college though!). All the books I bought for classes and couldn’t read because each course gave me far too much work to read *everything* are being read now, and I’m reading all kinds of other things voraciously. Also, do audio-books count at all? If one learns neither verbally nor through listening, can it be argued that reading a book is better than listening to an unabridged audio book of it?

  6. poetloverrebelspy says:

    Let me second Dana on that statistic being sadder than sad. Have so many worn out or lost their intellectual curiosity (or never had any in the first place)? And on a side note, I think the TheGnat makes a good point about college forcing you to buy books you should read, even if you don’t manage to do so during school. I think profs should pay more careful attention to their syllabi for that exact reason.

    When I am busy with school, I am doing nothing but reading! And my “fun” reading comes only in the form of online news and other fora. Who has time for books (or other text I’ve culled/downloaded) that aren’t assigned or weren’t essential research?

    Last year while in a stressful program in Russia, I made a concerted effort to read non-school books on transport (when possible) and in the evenings. Hence I made it through a lot more books in addition to my online news. I haul around the world probably 20 books to read when I have the time, mostly stuff my mom has read and thought was good. This year I added in books I wanted to reread and a couple secondhand collections of authors I like. Haven’t had a moment to crack one since I unpacked them! I have long been looking forward to my thesis due date in anticipation of reading non-school-related books!

    Note that my statistics do not include travel guides. I have around 20 of those with me as well (even more on the shelf at home-home). Those have been the only “fun” books I’ve read this year — tho hardly non-essential in my life.

    But I think how many books one reads is as much a matter of how busy one is and how much of an effort to do so one makes. I mean, this year I could have replaced transport reading of articles and school-related things with non-school-related books. I would have read as many books as last year, but that would not have been good for my learning process (just as if you, Mike, replaced all your news consumption with books — wouldn’t be good for business). Goshawk is reading at the beach because he’s not busy at the beach. Some people can read at work or while temping because they’re not busy and they consciously plan to read something they’ve brought along. With people as busy and as stressed as they are, it is no surprise they rarely make the time or the effort to read. Great books can be rewarding, but I believe fewer people are willing to invest in them, as you note.

    I think the real concern, however, is not about the death of books but about decreasing literacy. How many people who aren’t reading books aren’t reading newspapers or anything else either? That seems to me more troublesome.

  7. B Barron says:

    College is probably the worst time for recreational readers. When I was at university I read nothing but journals and academic papers. The exception came during the summer between undergraduate and graduate school, when I took a short break from the action and went on a reading binge. My choice of books? The complete works of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (in English, of course). For a short time I was totally in the Gulag! Then I went to grad school (which some might say IS a Gulag!) and didn’t read anything for pleasure until I was done.

  8. laikal says:

    Like Jennie, I’m going to agree that different media come with different (not necessarily worse) reading requirements; like Mike, though, I suspect that books are important, if only because there are plenty of important topics that are impossible to cover adequately in the bite-sized (or, in the case of the Economist, value-meal sized) portions that newspapers and magazines are all about.

    I’m worried about the larger picture of a society where complex subjects are only ever broached in the format of news or even newsweek-length articles (or worse, on radio or TV). I think we’ve already seen the impact of that on our collective decision-making apparatus.

    I hate to say it, but most of the people I know who are fanatic multitaskers, even the really smart ones, end up with a broad (because of their many inputs) but shallow (because of their lack of focus) engagement with whatever it is they’re multitasking through. I mean, contemporary neuroscience pretty much demonstrates that it is physically impossible for humans to actually pay attention to multiple streams of information, so if you are accepting multiple inputs, you are basically either flitting back and forth constantly (limiting your possible engagement with the material) or focusing on one and subconsciously going through the motions on the other.

    Sure, there are opportunity costs associated with reading, because you can’t read a book and, say, evaluate software at the same time; on the other hand some things simply require longer exposition and attention.

    I personally find reading to exhibit positive externalities – the more interesting material I read, the more I want to read. That said, I struggled to read fiction while I was in grad school, and its been slow getting back to it. My last semester and a half was chock full of amazing non-fiction, and I’m not even done reading through all of the background/related material. For fiction, I’ve pretty much been limited to gaming stuff: background material and rules :).

  9. Dana says:

    In thinking more about this, while I don’t think that we should necessarily be valuing certain kinds of knowledge over others, books vs. more ephemeral media, I think laikal has a good point. So, no, Jennie’s husband shouldn’t feel bad because he doesn’t read books when he reads, but as laikal notes, relying on bite-sized condensed versions of information can lead to very shallow, and probably misinformed, knowledge, (due to relying on people not specialists in the field to reinterpret the information for their audience.)

    In observing my own habits and feelings over the past several days, I’ve found that I tend to think of online reading as a social act and/or as “wasting time,” not as actual reading. To me, reading is engaging more deeply with the subject matter, and does require more attention, but that’s hardly a bad thing. Even reading fiction has its uses in that regard, because I pick up a great deal of random information from background stuff mentioned in those books. I *like* the absorption of reading a book; it’s the closest I can come to experiencing flow.

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