In praise of unitasking

Weaning an addict isn't easy, and I'm addicted to information.

For a data junkie, the Internet is irresistible. It offers innumerable incoming streams, and with tools like Web browsers, RSS, Twitter and so on, I can soak them all up. The by-product, of course, is distraction. I flip from one to the other like a manic hummingbird, never satisfied. What else is going on, and how quickly can I find out about it?

It's amazing how eagerly we invite distraction upon ourselves. Consider how frequently we do two (or more) things at once. While an app launches, I check Twitter. As a Web page loads, I Command-Tab over to Mail. All the while, iTunes plays music, and I'm thinking about what else must be done today.

I became keenly aware of how infrequently I focus on one single thing when I started using my iPad. For the most part (yes, you can play music in the background), it does one thing at a time. In fact, when I'm using an app on the iPad, it becomes that app.

makes it a weather station. Launch Twitterrific and your iPad becomes Twitter. The New York Times turns my iPad, for all intents and purposes, into an (abridged) issue of that newspaper. There's no beep, chirp or other electronic fidget to lure me away from simply reading a story.

A few weeks into using an iPad, your behavior starts to change. You don't keep one ear open for that alert sound. You realize that you'll survive if you miss a funny tweet. You sink into a chair and read an article from start to finish. Or play a game, look at photos or, etc. It's unfamiliar, un-American (Go, go, go! More, more, more!), and downright pleasant.

It's also completely temporary.

The latest update to The New York Times Editors' Choice added options to share articles via Twitter, Facebook, and email. As I read, that icon in the upper right-hand corner talks to me. "Tweet this," it says. "Post it to your wall. Don't even read past the third paragraph. SHARE." I want to tap it. Oh, how I want to tap it.

I agree with Shawn Blanc when he calls iOS " ... the best anti-distraction piece of software I've ever used." As iOS 4 looms, the promise of third-party multitasking burned across its chest as if from a red-hot brand, I lament the loss of my iPad's single-mindedness. Folders will cluster apps together. Mail, Facebook, and oodles of other clamoring apps will run at once, and I'll remember, faintly, what it was like to use a device that did one thing at a time.

Hold on, I gotta tweet this.