In addition to being the first black president, Obama is also being lauded as the first Blackberry president. Of course, not everyone thinks that his use of the Blackberry is a good idea.
In addition to the security concerns about such a communication device, one worry is that the Blackberry will distract Obama and impede his decision making abilities. Obviously, the same concern applies (to varying degrees) to everyone who uses a Blackberry and other distracting mobile devices.
One main concern is that using such devices puts people in a state on ongoing partial attention. This is to say that part of a person’s attention is on her mobile device(s) and part is on whatever else it is that she is trying to do (such as drive).
The problem of partial attention is, obviously enough, nothing new. People have always had to deal with various distractions and these have included technological distractions for quite some time. For example, the TV, radio and phone have been distracting people for decades and portable versions of these devices are nothing new.
However, the new mobile devices (iPods, mobile phones, smart phones, and such) have changed things significantly. Part of the change is the volume of these devices. When I was a kid, I’d see people carrying radios and sometimes even someone with a battery powered TV. And, of course, there was the Walkman. However, almost everyone seems to have a mobile device these days. Hence, partial attention resulting from technology is far more widespread. Another factor is that such devices seem somehow more compelling to people. While I do remember people walking around under the influence of their Walkman or boom box, they do not come close to the level of mobile device zombification seen today. It might be because the devices can do so much (phone, text, play music, show videos, and browse the web) that their distractive powers are so great.
As to why people are worried about this, one obvious concern is safety. The clearest threat to safety is, of course, people being distracted while driving.
In addition to the safety issue, there is also the concern that the distraction provided by such devices is cutting into productivity, reducing creativity and increasing stress. In the case of productivity, this is obvious. While such devices can be useful tools, people seem to most often use them to waste time. For example, take my experiences as a professor: many students spend their class time using their mobile devices. While classes can be both dull and useless, the use of such devices makes it more likely that a student is wasting her time in class. She might be physically present, but she is not learning (well, not learning because of the class). Of course, what counts as a waste of time can be relative. Since I’m trying to teach, a student texting away in my class is wasting his time. However, he might see it as an excellent use of his time.In any case, a person who is dividing his attention is not getting the most from each of the things he is doing. For example, people who are twittering about the president’s speech are not really listening as they push those buttons. Sometimes that is fine. Sometimes, not so much.
As far as reducing creativity goes, a case can be made that people do much of their creative thinking when their minds are free to wander. Anecdotally, I find this to hold in my case. For example, I come up with many ideas when I am running and my mind is free to wander about-this is one reason why I never run with an iPod.
This does make sense. If a person is almost always partially paying attention to his mobile device, this will limit his ability to mentally wander and think in new ways. Obviously, such devices do not eliminate creativity, but they do dampen it. This is especially true if the devices are always there to interrupt and demand attention.
As far as stress goes, a mobile communication device can boost stress. While always being potentially in touch with people can be reassuring, it also means that you are potentially on call everywhere and at all times. That is hardly relaxing. True, the home phone meant that people could be called anytime at home, but the mobile devices take this to a new level. They also seem to have helped erode the old boundaries about when it is acceptable to expect people to be in contact. This has, as others have argued, effectively expanded our work time. Of course, people do waste time at work using their mobile devices, so perhaps it is only fair that these devices help make us work when we should be relaxing. Such devices can also rob us of the relaxation afforded by focusing on one activity. For example, having a pleasant dinner with your significant other can be pleasant and relaxing. However, if you are both fielding texts and calls during the dinner, then you are degrading the experience and your time together.
I am not going to advocate getting rid of mobile devices-that would be rather absurd. Rather, I advocate the obvious-some people need to take back control from their mobile devices.
I’m rather fond of technology, but I’m careful to keep it where it belongs-being my servant and not my master.