A new study on multitasking has just called into question the effectiveness of those who practise it. According to the study, people multitask not because they are good at it but because they have poor concentration spans and cannot concentrate on the work in hand. Those who are most likely to multitask well, it seems, are unlikely to do so, since they are the most adept at focusing on individual pieces of work. The research, conducted by the University of Utah, noted with particular alarm that “people who talk on cell phones while driving tend to be the people least able to multitask well”.
The exception to prove this rule, from the Classical world at least, is Julius Caesar. Not only was he multitalented – soldier, strategist, author, orator, raconteur, politician, seducer (of both sexes), connoisseur of the arts, dandy and pubic hair depilation fanatic – but he was the finest multitasker of the age. A host of accounts describe his prodigious talent for doing several things at once. It is not just on a broad level that he had this ability, for example writing two books on the theory of grammar, a narrative on the subject of travel, and a collection of witticisms whilst out on campaign. It was in the field of day-to-day life that he was a master of this skill. Pliny the Elder records that he was able to read, write and dictate letters all at the same moment as listening to suitors begging for favour. He had an entourage of four clerks, to each of whom he could dictate four different letters at the same time, and sometimes this number rose as high as seven. If modern multitaskers using mobile phones whilst driving worry the researchers from the University of Utah, who knows what they would have thought of Caesar who, not having the benefit of a Blackberry, would dictate letters on horseback to two slaves who rode either side of him.
It should be realised that multitasking was a necessary part of Caesar’s grip on power. Much of his auctoritas came not just from his fortune, but from the web of favours and influence he diligently maintained amongst thousands of Romans. Social networking, in other words, was fundamental to Caesar’s success, and multitasking was the only way to maintain personal touch with the vast numbers of people tied to him by obligation. Had Caesar been with us today, a few of those clerks would likely have been made redundant, and Facebook made to take up the slack.