Multitasking hits the wall

A few years ago I expressed my concern that telephones were creeping into hotel bathrooms. I honestly didn’t think that the telephone-toilet tandem might be the end of Western Civilization, but this was still a level of multitasking that I found a little disturbing — and I am pretty rabid when it comes to multitasking. If I could answer e-mails while sleeping, I would. Recently when I asked a hotel concierge about BMs (bathroom multitaskers), he said the phones were there in the event someone slipped in the tub.
Yeah, right. That’s why the telephones are side by side with the toilet paper. Personally, I’d have to have blood gushing from my eyeballs like a fire hose before I would crawl across the bathroom tile and touch a telephone next to a toilet.
In any case, I was mistaken: We might have reached a point in which Western Civilization is indeed in jeopardy, and it really did begin, in my opinion, with the telephone by the toilet. I am referring to the way men are now making serious business deals and having important conversations while staring at the wall above the urinal as they are … you know. Because of such technologies as the Jabra wireless headset, men are now free to multitask in the men’s room. Women, for all I know, are doing the same things inside ladies’ room stalls, but I have not been inside a ladies’ room since my daughter was 5, and that was back in the Mesozoic period when cell phones were massive, ungainly things at least the size of a Twinkie two-pack. But I can certainly speak for men. And some men are multitasking where no man has gone before.
Now, far be it from me to suggest that we should be slowing down and doing one thing — such as No. 1 — at a time. The world has changed, and we need to be multitasking to survive. But I almost murdered a man at an airport bathroom urinal last month. He had a bladder the size of a camel’s, and he was (apparently) trying to close energy credit deals. I wanted to tap him on the shoulder and say, “I have two syllables for you, buddy: En. Ron.” I know a lot about that industry now.
I shudder to think of where this trend is going. It’s not merely the reality that we are now punctuating business deals with the whoosh of a toilet flush instead of a good old-fashioned handshake; it’s not even the fact that I wouldn’t want to shake most of those people’s hands. It’s my sense that we are multitasking so much that we are losing those last moments when we are doing nothing but thinking. Reflecting. Contemplating.
It wasn’t all that long ago that when we were alone in our automobiles, we were incommunicado. No one could call us, and we could call no one. We might listen to the radio or audio books or music (8-track tapes, then cassette tapes, then compact discs), but we might also be motoring along in silence, with the opportunity to allow our thoughts to wander. New ideas would have the chance to germinate and put down roots. No more. It’s my own fault, but because there is now the option to use a hands-free phone in the car, I will, and the car is no longer a sanctuary for thought. It’s a conference room.
And now bathrooms have been commandeered, too — though I hasten to add, I will never succumb. Good heavens, I’m so uptight that my wife and daughter still have no idea that I ever do anything in the bathroom other than bathe.
Still, I fear it’s a losing battle. It’s only a matter of time before the bathroom replaces the boardroom, and absolutely nothing is sacred.
(This column originally ran in the Burlington Free Press on April 20, 2008.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.

2 thoughts on “Multitasking hits the wall

  1. neil says:

    I dumped my cell phone. You can call me at home or the office when you need me. My commuter rail train car has become a conference room too. For all of us, not just the loud mouth sitting eight rows up.
    When I drive behind a person chatting on the phone, they swerve on the road a little and drive like it’s the other thing they’re doing at the moment. Of course, it is. If you don’t believe me, ask the people at Liberty Mutual. Distraction is the number #1 cause of automobile accidents. Armed with this knowledge, you’d think call phone chatters on the road wold be required by law to pull over to make phone calls. Why has the cell phone lobby forsaken us? Government, of by and for industry.

  2. Jessica J. says:

    I often feel oddly out of touch with my generation – I’m twenty-five – because things like being on the cell phone all the time and being on MySpace boggle my brain. Driving in the car with nothing but me, the radio, wandering thoughts (and occasional enthusiastic but terrible singing) is one of my favorite times.
    I also laugh at myself for doing the “back in my day” thing with younger kids. Watching TV shows set in high school drive me up the wall. Or just seeing a 10 year-old on the street text messaging in the grocery store while they follow their mom around. I just don’t understand that.
    I’m happy that none of that appeals to me. Of course, it could be a slight case of technophobia. Resistant to change, who me?

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