My digital workspace was previously limited on a 13-inch laptop screen. It’s cramped and probably not good for posture, but investing in a second screen feels like admitting to some kind of failure-accepting that the computer plays an important role in my life. When I describe multi-monitor setups, they usually belong to people who spend 12-plus hours per day playing MMORPGs or, worse, trading stocks.
But the pandemic continues, and the small laptop screen is starting to feel more like a prison. I admitted the loss and bought a (surprisingly cheap!) Computer monitor on Craigslist. It’s an instant game-changer. Suddenly my screen doubled before. Thousands and thousands of pixels. I can open my Zoom lecture on one screen, while doing homework for another class and checking Twitter on another. I feel like Neo hacked the Matrix. Very nice. The second monitor made me feel doubly productive so, naturally, I bought the third.
Switching between tabs on a screen takes only a few milliseconds, but it’s enough to derail a train of thought. This is solved across multiple monitors by distributing all the tabs in front of you simultaneously. To move between them, you need to turn your eyeballs a few millimeters to the right or left. It’s like a messy pile of papers strewn across your desk; even if you’re not actively reading it, a part of your brain is thinking about it.
In 1588, Agostino Ramelli invented the bookwheel, a rotating bookcase-like cabinet that allowed scholars to quickly switch between multiple, open books. Now, Windows 10 can run up to 14 monitors from one device. Virtual reality still carries it. Technologist Paul Tomlinson has a great essay on Medium about his virtual reality workspace, which can mimic multiple displays the size of an IMAX screen. Spending eight hours a day strapped to VR goggles seems dystopian, but all the screens should make you more productive. Right?
My current three monitor setup allows for a surprising number of things to happen at the same time. To my right: Slack, email and calendar. Left: a word document, app notes and interview transcripts. Below that: more notes, documents, webpages and various tabs.
It’s a smooth setup, but in recent weeks I’ve started to question what exactly the additional monitors do. Obviously I’m not three times more productive, even if I want to feel like I am. Yes, additional screens make it easier to access information, but at what cost? Switching between tabs is a distraction, but so is putting everything on your face at the same time.
The fallacy of the heart of the digital age is that more access to information is fundamentally good. More text, more pixels, more scrolling, more notifications, more knowledge – it all has to build something. But what?
I wrote a lot on this piece while backpacking the Cascades. When I turned left, there was no more screen with pages of notes and reference documents, just an icy lake and mountains covered in snow. It doesn’t have to be better, but neither does it get worse. I’m starting to think that rushing to get attention and increase productivity can be an invincible fight. More and more work involves writing words on a computer. You can choose to do it on a screen or 20, but at the end of the day it probably doesn’t matter. The human capacity for distraction always wins. ♦