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Overload!: How Too Much Information is Hazardous to Your Organization by Jonathan B. Spira

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CHAPTER 16

SINGLETASKING

In order to improve the mind, we ought less to learn, than to contemplate.

—René Descartes

When computers were able to perform only one task at a time, life was much simpler – especially when viewed with respect to Information Overload. (Of course, when most people’s desks didn’t even have computers, life was even simpler as it was unlikely that a file or folio would jump up on the desk demanding attention while the worker was focused on something else.)

Computers were first introduced into the office at large via video display terminals (VDTs), “dumb” terminals that had no processing power and served only to connect the user to a mini or mainframe computer. (Earlier users connected via electromechanical teletypewriters, but these were not widely deployed.) These VDTs were capable of supporting one task at a time, be it word processing or data entry.

Unlike today, where every desk is likely to have a computer, most jobs prior to the early 1990s did not require constant computer access; many required no computer access at all. Workers frequently shared computer terminals, either via a separate workstation dedicated to computer access or a terminal placed in between two desks so that it could be shared by two workers.

The earliest personal computers, which started to arrive en masse in offices in the mid-1980s, were also limited to one task at a time, although they were “smart” as opposed to dumb because the computer power and storage were local.

These early ...

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