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Wired: Using Multiple Screens Focuses, Not Fragments, Your Attention

Wired has cottoned to a pattern of behavior that I noticed myself a couple years ago. As gadget owners get more devices they tend to use them all at once, each for a different task:

10053155455_bdbbec3dcd_b[1]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

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Jon Jermey July 7, 2014 um 5:40 pm

I’m teaching myself piano, and I started out with a welter of sheet music on paper, which was very hard to keep track of. Then I found the Android MidiSheetMusic app which can convert MIDI files to sheet music, and scroll through it on the display at a suitable playing speed (in my case very slow). I now have that running now on a ten-inch Android tablet, propped up on the music stand at the back of my electric piano, and each week I play through about one hundred pieces in sequence. Every time I play a piece I try to achieve a slightly higher speed.

I keep track of which song I’m up to and the current best speed with a cloud-based list-management program, running on the ten-inch tablet itself and a couple of seven-inch tablets I also have. I started with Our Groceries, which was fine, but the ads were annoying and the registration price was a little steep, so I switched to Packing List. Now I prop a seven-inch tablet next to the ten-inch tablet, showing a list with the current pieces to play, and the speeds I’ve reached so far. When I successfully play a piece faster, I mark that on the list and note the new speed. And because it’s cloud-based, that information becomes available on whichever tablet I use next time round.

Juli Monroe July 7, 2014 um 7:56 pm

I also frequently sort emails on my iPhone/iPad, and I almost never use Feedly on my desktop. I use my iPad for that because the interface just works better for me.

Most days, I have phone, tablet(s) and my computer in use, all for different purposes.

By the way, the new theme looks even better on my iPad than on my computer.

Bart Anderson July 7, 2014 um 7:57 pm

Good observation, Nate & Wired! New technologies don’t totally replace old ones, but instead we gradually figure out which are most suited for particular tasks. That’s why the arguments about ereaders replacing books, and tablets replacing ereaders never made much sense to me.

My current usage patterns:

Desktop PC: writing, taking notes, intensive research on the web.
Tablet: browsing the web, monitoring and deleting email, short messages.
Ereader: Reading books and long articles (via Pocket).

Since we got tablets, I’ve reduced the use of the desktop by about 75%. I used to print out several hundred pages a month, now I hardly print out anything.

Alison July 8, 2014 um 9:44 am

I use my laptop (at my desk only) for emails. If I’m away from home or the office I’ll use my android phone but it’s not as good.

I use my Kindle keyboard for books, and egalleys, and I also send recipes and knitting patterns to it via the text converter.

I don’t have a tablet (yet.)

Greg Strandberg July 8, 2014 um 1:57 pm

I sit at the computer so much each day that not having any mobile devices worth a damn really allows me to get a rest. I guess that’s one benefit of 'needing' a keyboard all the time.

Nate Hoffelder July 8, 2014 um 2:27 pm

This is kinda why i don’t have a smartphone.

I’m at my computer so much that I don’t really need one, and when I am on trips I use the downtime to contemplate, relax, and sight see.

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