Thursday, January 8, 2009

Second Life: Training Old Dogs to Multitask

Location: Montclair State University Virtual Campus

In the latest SL Roundtable--a lively meeting of educators each week, hosted by Montclair's indefatigable AJ Brooks--one participant fretted about "the panic that I'm not getting, doing, noticing everything! I'll post an entry on that wonderful session--some very talented faculty presented to an audience of 90 visitors.

But first, I want to reflect on how I cope with multiple duties and information overload. Even as I wrote this entry today, I had to resolve two grade-appeals, locate a missing part-time faculty member, and (yes, no lie) track down an affectionate but easily misplaced chihuahua that faculty member brought by the office (the dog gave me some renewed respect for the breed, by the way).

Can you ever get "everything" in the real world? Why should a virtual one be different? I compare SL to the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, home to more than 2600 shops. To get lost in its maze of streets overwhelms an American visitor. Our shopping districts are so tame, even compared to Harrods in London. Visitors, turned this way and that, often fall prey to an urge to splurge.

When shopping in such places, the best stratagem is one that also works when multitasking in an image-rich place like Second Life. You cannot, ever, take in the bombardment of images, most of them new and strange. My own approach is to pretend I've a filter over my eyes. I don't look in every shop or turn my head at every shopowner's come-on. I get a general lay of the land, noting that I'm, say, in the street of leather-merchants or the street of jewelers who specialize in gold. When I must play along when a merchant walks beside me and says "Let me help you spend your money" I grin and say something funny back, staying in the spirit of the place. Over several visits, I've imposed some mental map on the craziness of the Grand Bazaar.

When one finds a shop with, say, 1000 unique backgammon sets, chaos can ensue as the owner brings tea, discusses one's impression of Turkey, and opens set after set to show off the enamel-work or bits of semiprecious stones. It's even worse in a carpet store when confronted by a waist-deep pile of nicely made rugs. My shopping experiences in Turkey have, however, helped me to multitask in ways that I never dreamed possible as I bargained for price and quantity along the Bosporus and in Sultanhamet.

Like a bazaar, or even the flat Web, virtual worlds provide us with more than we can ever take in. And is that bad? Reality does the same to us, every day. No one can parse all the colors of a sunset or truly examine every rug in one carpet shop (and the Grand Bazaar and its neighborhood host hundreds of shops). By putting the mind into a lower gear, getting an overview, and then being selective at the right moments, we can multitask in places like SL, with its stream of instant messages, changing images, and more.

My students do this by instinct. They've never known anything else. Gradually, but with growing confidence, I'm acquiring their ability to multitask and, when I don't notice every little thing, I let that go. Over time, I return again and again to what matters, in both worlds.

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