I’m a bad man. I simply do not pay attention the way I used to. I do so many things that I promised myself I would never do: Work on the computer when I’m supposed to be listening to someone on the phone. Watch my tweets flow by on my laptop while someone is standing right in front of me, talking to me. And worst of all, I sometimes Tweet or text while walking on New York City’s crowded streets and avenues.
What’s happened to me? Better question: What’s happening to us?
When I’m walking with my head bowed, staring intently at a little 4-inch screen, there’s another noodle head heading right towards me, doing the exact same thing. It’s a wonder there aren’t more collisions on the sidewalks of Manhattan.
This is not a new problem. A noteworthy 2008 Ohio State University study and an excellent New York Times article based on it outline the issue in excruciating detail.
From the New York Times:
“Slightly more than 1,000 pedestrians visited emergency rooms in 2008 because they got distracted and tripped, fell or ran into something while using a cellphone to talk or text. That was twice the number from 2007, which had nearly doubled from 2006, according to a study conducted by Ohio State University, which says it is the first to estimate such accidents.”
The article is from January 2010. In 2009, US. smartphone penetration sat at roughly 32% of all Americans. This year it’s edging toward 50%. Imagine all those millions of people walking, talking, driving and crashing into each other. Actually, you don’t have to imagine. Just look around you.
Technologies like voice search on Android phones and Apple’s new Siri: Intelligent Assistant on the iPhone 4S could at least stop people from looking down and typing on their phones. Still, talking on cellphones on the street and in the car is almost just as distracting.
A 2009 University of Utah study (PDF) found that people were significantly distracted, even when conducting hands-free cell phone conversations. From the report:
“…even when participants looked directly at objects in the driving environment, they were less likely to create a durable memory of those objects if they were conversing on a cell phone. …Moreover, in-vehicle conversations do not interfere with driving as much as cell-phone conversations do, because drivers are better able to synchronize the processing demands of driving with in vehicle conversations than with cell-phone conversations.”
Which probably means technologies like Siri and Android voice search may not help as much as everyone thinks.
Let’s get out of the car for a moment and back on the sidewalk. I’ve witnessed innumerable people using Bluetooth headsets to talk and walk at the same time. This activity is quite different than walking with a group of friends and talking, and when you do it, you always look a little nutty, apparently talking to nobody but yourself. I can tell you that when I use a headset and walk to the train, I can scarcely remember my trip. I’m seeing everything and have not collided with anyone, but the memories simply aren’t there. It’s as if they were pushed aside in favor of the conversation happening largely inside my head.
That University of Utah study calls this ‘Inattention Blindness” and I’m sure it’s real. Be honest. Haven’t you ever driven for a while, daydreaming until you realized you did not remember the last few minutes — or more — of the drive? No memory of turns, signals, acceleration, breaking; yet there you are, someplace else, all in one piece.
In the home, I have multiple screens competing for my attention and I am as guilty as they come when it comes to losing track of what’s going on around me. The only solution I’ve found is to literally put away all these screens. Hide my phones, close my laptops, turn off the TV and actually pay attention to whomever is standing right in front of me.
I don’t expect everyone to permanently pocket their phones, end in-car, hands-free phone conversations and turn off that iPad. However, being aware of the issue could be half the battle. I’m just not sure this battle is one any of us, especially me, can win.
What about you? Is your tech and social distraction out of control? What do you do to maintain balance and not lose focus on what’s real? Tell us in the comments.
Illustration by Lance Ulanoff