Monday 18 December 2017

Will men ever learn to multi-task? There's hope

Ken Bourke

The Greeks have a myth about a man named Tiresias. Apparently, he was turned into a woman for seven years and then turned back into a man.

The experience was an eye opener, but although he gained many insights into human nature as a result of his transformation, no one has ever claimed that he was able to multi-task when he came back.

If only he could have internalised that skill when he was a woman, and then taught it to his fellow men, how different the world would be.

How much easier life would be in the army, for example. Right back to the time of Alexander the Great, the chaps in charge have always had to call 'attention!' before attempting to give their commands, because they know that men can only do one thing at a time.

So if the troops are polishing their boots, or cleaning their swords, or studying their maps, it is understood that you cannot expect them to hear what someone else is saying to them.

That's why the rule is 'shout first and give orders later'.

Women have had the drop on men in this department for too long.

Look at Snow White and the magic she worked in the house of the seven dwarves. They had her out-numbered but she out-dusted, out-tidied and out-cooked the lot of them. And she sang as she did it.

How so? Because she could do it all at the same time.

Will this forever be the way of the world? Will men always be held back by our fixation with doing one thing after another? Or is it possible that we too could develop the capacity to juggle stuff the way women do?

If we are not prepared to learn from women, maybe we could take a lesson from our experience with information technology.

When I started my first job, there was a special room for the computer. The central processing unit was the size of a fridge-freezer and it sat, like the Ark of the Covenant, in the middle of a rarefied space, with banks of memory tapes lined up at a respectful distance.

Ordinary mortals were not allowed to touch the mighty machine; you had to have a special pass to stand in its presence.

In those days, the computer worked like this: it took one piece of information and changed it a bit; then it took another, and changed that; and so on until every little piece of data had been crunched. And when one big job was completed, everyone took a little break before embarking on the next thing.

The reverence we felt for the computer was reinforced by the fact that a lot of this mysterious business took place at night.

Then, one day, someone started talking about partitions. We were familiar with the ones that allowed people to hide from each other in an open-plan office, but these new computer partitions were smart: they allowed the machine to work on more than one task at a time.

If only 70pc of its capacity was required for a particular job, then the operators could ask it to do something else with the other 30pc. Overnight, the world had changed, and computers would never be the same again.

I always knew that these partitions marked a turning point in the development of information technology, but now I think they may also represent a symbol on the path of evolution.

Up until the arrival of partitions, computers had been thinking like men; from that time on, they would be able to think like women.

So here is the challenge for men: can we now go where women and computers have gone before? At some point in the future, will it be possible for a man to watch the news on the television, offer thoughtful advice to his children and chop vegetables, all at the same time?

That day may come. Until it does, it's probably safer to leave that important conversation until after you've finished with the knife.

As for poor Tiresias, he was struck blind by a goddess for saying the women had more fun than men, but that's for another day.

Weekend Magazine

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