Can human beings really, truly, multitask?  Can we really deal with multiple tasks in the office without compromising a single one of them, and still come home with sanity and energy to spare?  No…and yes depending on what your concept of multitasking is.

Human life as an operating system

In my perspective as a college IT lecturer, human beings really can’t multi-task. Many of us are also not aware that “multi-tasking” is a misnomer for another concept happening in our personal computers and smart phones: time-sharing.

The concept of the operating system came during the turn of the 1950’s.  Operating systems for computing hardware at the time are not even in the stage of time-sharing yet.  They process instructions and data in sequential manner called batch [job] processing.  Instructions in punched cards are queued and read first-in-first-out, followed by data.  Very often, there is only one reader (or that only one reader can be used) at any given time.  Some jobs are very long and very complex (which are peanuts now for a smart watch).  Those jobs have very long loading and turnaround times, to think that other jobs of shorter length and lesser complexity—but perhaps greater importance—are waiting in the queue.  It will be a long while before they get their chance to serve their purposes.

People can be like that too.  We have eyes and ears that receive instructions, but only one brain that can process them.  Sometimes, when we get started on something, we tend to get engrossed; our own batch processing takes over and we queue everything else that came at later times.  Same deal: first-in-first-out.  Then, people, like working parents who had to juggle a variety of responsibilities, and party animals who want to have every bit of fun now, sort of invented the word “multi-tasking” (although Einstein and other members of the Manhattan Project may have been doing it).  Actually, nobody knows when exactly it came about and who actually started it, but it’s here.

I, Operating System: Can We Really Multitask?

Time-sharing, hmmm…

Before time-sharing, there was a concept called multiprogrammed batch processing.  A program for determining instruction parameters (like size, turnaround time and priority) was loaded first: the first true operating system that manages all other programs.  Every program thereafter will have their queue order decided by that operating system.  Reordering the queue decreases the average amount of time waiting for other jobs to get processed.

Time-sharing “shreds” a big program into “threads.”  These threads will have process and thread ID’s to indicate that they are indeed parts of a bigger instruction.  Other big programs are also “shredded” in the same fashion.  The threads are then interspersed with one another.  In such a way, other queued programs get earlier starts; the chances of faster turnaround and shorter waiting times also increase.  Just take a look at the sample spreadsheet below.  In reality, what appears like doing two tasks at once is actually repetitive alternating attention to both tasks.

I, Operating System: Can We Really Multitask?
Master Splinter, himself, is also good at multitasking.  Ask the Foot soldiers he beat up.

I, Operating System: Can We Really Multitask?
In real life, a number of milestones (deliverables, outputs, results, etc.) will have been achieved in the same amount of time, but lower average waiting time (AWT).  Equal priority or importance is assumed in the above example.
Supposing we have two methods of processing jobs (or programs or instructions): shortest-job-first (SJF) and time-sharing.  Each of them has two jobs in the queue: one with a 54-second turnaround time, the other 64, but the same processes have been "shredded" for time-sharing.  Both will have a total turnaround time of 172 seconds.  The SJF has an average waiting time (AWT) of 57.33 seconds, but the time-sharing method shaves off more than one second.  A one-thousand-or-so millisecond difference is a big deal for today’s microprocessors and the people who pile up the pressure on them.


People are like operating systems without their knowing it.  Wait!  People are operating systems! They go through childhood to their last moments without them ever knowing it.  Well, some of us do, usually those who manage projects or are computer scientists.

We are one piece of hardware that needs controlling.  Before us are a myriad of responsibilities to family, institutions and the community at large.  All those will claim to be important; it’s up to us to decide through prioritization which ones are more important than others.  While some responsibilities have early ends, many are works in progress.  As part of our mindfulness of growth (never mind those who refuse to grow up), we “shred” our responsibilities into their component “threads” and identify associated goals for each.  For each goal achieved, we chalk up a milestone—an indicator of growth, progress or improvement in life.

Sometimes, we can’t handle things on our own, particularly big undertakings.  As such, we “link up” with other like-minded sentient operating systems who help us share the load of managing schedules, monitoring budget and expenditures, identifying skills and matching them with project skill requirements.  So, does that make a project team a distributed operating system or a virtualized cloud platform?  Quite like it.  If so, what’s life like?  A queue with many mysteries.

I, Operating System: Can We Really Multitask?
This happened as a result of fumbling with my playlist midway through a 6.6-kilometer fun run at UP Diliman's Academic Oval last 31 Aug 2014.  I stumbled upon a traffic reflector stud on the road.  The lower part of my palm absorbed a great deal of the impact and is taking more than two weeks to completely heal.
We humans, however good at juggling important matters, must accept the fact that there will be things that require our undivided attention like family days with kids in school or bike-commuting (sans the earphones and MP3; else, worse accidents like the one above).  For our sakes and that of others, don't text and drive or do other senseless multitasking that endanger lives, relationships and our institutions.  Just imagine that if all the people in the world multitasks for thrills, we will likely have a shared doom.  Or a world full of people with large heat sinks on their heads.

I, Operating System: Can We Really Multitask?
Let's just shut down our hyper heads before we get any closer to realizing that shared doom.

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