Gollum on the couch

Why Johnny can’t multitask

If you needed further evidence that American parents have become increasingly unhinged with terror at the thought that their children might turn in a subpar performance on the laughably-inaccurate-at-measuring-anything-other-than-income-inequality SATs, consider the Time Tracker. It’s a bestselling toy by Learning Resources, and it exists solely to teach kids “time management”, as their web site argues. Why, precisely, would a preschooler need to learn time management? Because it’ll potentially improve their performance on the SATs they’ll be taking in, oh, ten years or so! The most crucial educational skill now is neurotically subdividing tasks into five-minute increments. As the Time Tracker’s creators admit in a piece in today’s New York Times:

“It’s obviously not the type of thing kids would want for themselves,” said Andrea Galinski, product development manager at Chelsea & Scott, a Lake Bluff, Ill., company that owns Leaps and Bounds. But, she added, “We’ve had a very positive response from parents.”

The blindingly ironic thing, of course, is that Tayloresque time-management was originally designed not to help groom society’s elites, but to take auto-assembly working-class shlubs and train them to perform with robotic, mindless efficiency. And indeed, today’s low-paying wage-slave jobs are the same way. The ability to execute tasks measured to picosecond gradations is crucial these days not for lawyers and doctors but for Wal-Mart shelf restockers and phone-bank workers, whose performance is tracked with Soviet precision by their bosses, eager to shave a few half-hours off the proles’ weekly paychecks. So hey: If the Time Tracker doesn’t help your kids get into Harvard, at least they’ll have finely honed a skill set that’s absolutely crucial in flipping burgers!

In the helicopter-sploitation flick Blue Thunder, the main character — played by Roy Scheider — worries that he’s losing his mind, and notes that one of the first signs of insanity is an inability to accurately judge the passing of time. So he continually runs a little test on himself, closing his eyes and trying to measure out 15 seconds precisely. With the Time Tracker, we’ll reverse the proposition: Driving kids crazy, one second at a time.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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