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Thad Starner: Multiplex Don’t Multitask

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What Personal Protocols Do You Observe?


Long before Google Glass, there was Mr. Thad Starner and his wearable computer. Clive Thompson in Smarter Than You Think tells the story of how Mr. Starner, a Georgia Institute of Technology professor and eventual developer of Google Glass, put the computer together himself and devised a discreet keyboard he could hold and use without drawing attention. Mr. Starner’s computer did not visually record all that was happening around him (making this less likely), but it did give him the ability to quickly query any question before him and take notes on his conversations.

Mr. Starner has been making notes on conversations for upward of two decades. Through experience Mr. Starner found that he needed to “obeys strict social protocols” around his wearable computer:

He uses it his wearable only to look up information that augments a conversation he’s having. If he’s talking with someone about the Boston Red Sox, he might pull up statistics to sprinkle in, but he’s not secretly perusing cute-cat videos. (p.142)

And he definitely did not check email while in conversation with people. That would be bad. Really bad. Anyone with a smartphone should know: bad form to check your email with in conversation with the human before you.

Mr. Thompson’s point in Smarter Than Your Think had to do with “transactive memory,” how sometimes we offshore our knowledge to a reference book or Google—or to other people. We come to depend on the knowledge of a professor or spouse or friend because we know they will indeed hold on to that information. And they’ll release it so us if we ask. So we need not try to remember it. Transactive memory is a pretty big deal when thinking about learning communities and organizations. Transactive memory is helped by free and open dialogue. Transactive memory is short-circuited by members of an organization who hold a knowledge-is-power ethic.

I like how Mr. Starner’s ethic developed over time: as he witnessed how his own computer searches took him offline from humanity. I also like how he reframed his searching to look like multiplexing rather than multitasking. Still: one person’s multiplex may well look just like multitasking.


Image credit: lacedartillery via 2headedsnake/generic–eric)

Written by kirkistan

October 18, 2013 at 10:18 am

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