Split-screen life is here

By Ellen Goodman

The Boston Globe

I am watching an ad for a new television set that offers a screen within its screen. The beauty of this technology, I am told, is that it lets the viewer watch one channel while scanning the others.

But this particular electronic creature gives you more than a window of opportunity into the wide world of network and cable television. If you are into double vision, it actually lets you watch two channels at the same time.

I confess I have trouble finding one program I want to watch, let alone two. But I am convinced that this is a product of superb marketing strategy. It is attuned to the updated and speeded-up notions of efficiency and time management that now rule our lives. Remember the quaint needle-pointed idea taught by childhood teachers? The idea was that we should do “One Thing At a Time.”

It is time to admit that most adults are leading split-screen lives. Nobody who is anybody just does one thing anymore. Our burgeoning breed of one-minute managers, in-putters and maximizers of potential have come to believe that those who do two things at once get twice as much accomplished.

Busy-ness itself is no longer a symptom of workaholicism, but a badge of efficiency. Such two-fers as dialing and driving have become status symbols for executives. It isn’t considered ditzy anymore to drink coffee, apply makeup and insert contact lenses while commuting to work. It’s seen, perversely, as being well-organized.

Time is now regarded as a precious and rare resource, so wasting it is the modern sin of human ecology. We are expected to conserve, even recycle, every minute and to use several of our five senses at a time.

This double and triple-shifting comes with its own technology. We are able to watch one television program while taping a second, vacuum while talking on a portable phone, bike 20 miles on an exercycle while studying Swahili from a tape and log on to our portable computer in an airport waiting room. And so we do.

What’s behind all this is the true passion of the times: a lust for productivity. Remember the pursuit of the elusive simultaneous orgasm? We now pursue the illusion of simultaneous accomplishments.

There is a course offered in Cambridge, Mass., that teaches students several languages at the same time. That is nothing compared to the curriculum we set up for ourselves. Those who pass today’s finals must be able to spend time with their kids while losing weight and making three new business contacts during one intensive hour at the gym.

A recent Psychology Today article suggested that there was a damaging link between the pace of walking, talking and working in various cities and the rate of coronary heart disease. My own sense is that well-being isn’t a matter of how much time it takes to do one thing, it’s a measure of how many things you are trying to do at the same time.

I try to imagine sometimes what an updated version of Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times” would look like. These thoroughly modern times place a wider range of demands on every individual. We are supposed to be responsible for work, family, lowering our cholesterol, raising our computer literacy, actualizing our lives and becoming ecologically sensitive—all at the same time.

This ideal of simultaneous accomplishments fuels the favorite fantasy of the decade that if we were only more organized, and blessed with all the proper electronic helpers, we would be able to squeeze at least two lives into the time for one. Instead of making choices, we think we can make time.

When life is as split as the new television set, the second screen does show you a whole lot of options. But when it’s on, funny how much harder it seems to focus on the big picture.