Now that people have several devices at work—a laptop, a phone, a tablet—they’re finding their way to a similar trick, where they use each piece of hardware for a different purpose. Consider it a new way to manage all the digital demands on our attention: Instead of putting different tasks in different windows, people are starting to put them on different devices.
At the heart of this multiscreen life is a counterintuitive realization: that a profusion of devices can help focus one’s attention rather than fracture it. A pile of browser tabs on your laptop becomes mentally confusing; tasks get hidden and maybe forgotten. But when screens are physically separate, the problem evaporates.
In a sense, screens are beginning to absorb some of the cognitive ergonomics of paper, one of the oldest reading devices of all. With paper, after all, we’ve always put down one document and picked up another, shifting our attention organically. And as Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper note in The Myth of the Paperless Office, spreading out papers on a desk lets our eyes easily roam—a property hard to replicate on a single screen. Now the plunging price of hi-res mobile devices means it’s possible to own a few of them.
This comes as no surprise to me; I saw this kind of behavior in late 2011 (commented upon similar behavior about a month ago). That's when I started actively using an Android tablet for sorting through (but not necessarily reeading) tweets, Google Reader, and email. When I initially started using the Android tablet, I wanted to spend more time on my bed so I could snuggle my dogs.
But even when I was at my desk I still tended to use my Android tablet for sorting through emails and news feeds; it was just faster. (It also made me realize that a lot of mobile devices were used while stationary as a compliment to laptops and PCs.)
What's more, I would bet that I am not the first to find myself using a mobile device for a focused purpose. The iPhone is a good example of an earlier focuser of attention; I bet I'm not the only person who knows someone who only does email on their iPhone.
And before that, there were ereaders (and dare I mention the Blackberry). I know that Wired probably wouldn't think to include ebook readers, but they are an example of how multiple screens focuses your attention. I'm sure a lot of people have sent articles to their Kindle via one of the many bookmarklets that support this.
Now that I think about it, the idea of finding an article on your PC and moving it to a mobile device or ereader is over a decade old, and was supported way back when by apps like Plucker. I don't think those earlier methods worked all that well, but people were still using them.
Do you use more than one gadget at a time? How do you like to divide your reading and other activities?
image by Martin Voltri