Many thanks to my dear friend, Kate Rander, for pointing out a recent article in Time magazine entitled “Supertaskers: Why Some Can Do Two Things at Once“. After reading Alice Park’s piece, I went to the primary source, as I am always curious about what was not actually reported. Here’s what I found.

The University of Utah recently announced the findings of a new study that examined multitasking behavior in 200 students with a median age of 23.6. They simulated driving while talking on a cell phone (and did not fail to mention the phones they used were from Sprint PCS). What they found was that 2.5% of those who performed dual tasks actually excelled when multitasking. These so-called supertaskers performed in the upper quartile when performing a single task so they were already considered ‘special’. Add another task, however, and their performance increased notably. That means they actually thrived under split-attention conditions.

Yikes.

The paper underscores the dangers of driving while speaking on a cell phone (even hands-free) for the mere 97.5% of mankind that cannot supertask. In fact, they even take pains to quote the National Safety Council, which estimates that 1.6 million accidents and fatalities on US
highways were caused by drivers using cell phones (National Safety Council, 2010), 200,000 of which involved crashes with cell phone users who were texting. The total number of accidents and crash-related deaths due to cell phone usage while driving translates to 28%.

Researchers Jason Watson and David L. Strayer go on to say that “inattention blindness associated with cell phone conversations makes drivers unaware of their own driving impairments.” That’s research-speak for “Hey, I am not even aware of my unawareness while gabbing with my pals. I am special. I can do this!”, which is reminiscent of a smoker or alcoholic who says “I can quit any time I want, really. I can handle it!”

The researchers also admit that, in their experience, people tend to overestimate their ability to multitask: “[O]ur studies over the last decade have found that a great many people have the belief that the laws of attention do not apply to them.”

But they do.

The danger I see with this study is that those cell phone junkies who’ve got to get their fix even behind the wheel will use it to label themselves the ‘supertaskers’ they clearly aren’t. They will conveniently forget the study’s warning that “[i]t may be that supertaskers excel at multi-tasking at the expense of other processing abilities.” They will continue to believe the law of attention does not apply to them. Also, did they have to mention the brand Sprint PCS in their findings as a condition for using the company’s equipment? If yes, that’s product placement at its finest, making the findings rather questionable and convenient indeed…

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Cell phones are marvelous devices. They can unleash you from the harness of your land line, offer endless entertainment to cranky kids in the backseat and help track criminals who stupidly use a mobile phone to call home. The irony of the term cell phone itself is inescapable. Some days I too feel entrapped by my mobile like an inmate in a cell. If you feel incarcerated by yours, join the club. While the US has been slower to catch on to mobile device usage than, say, Asia, we are not far behind in the effects these devices have had on us.

With the invention of long-distance communications such as the telegraph, the telephone, satellite and even mobile phones, we have been able to connect the world with a few taps on a keypad. We can find each other at a crowded concert or call in case we get stuck alongside the road. The downside is we are always on or, at the very least, always available. For the non-criminals among us, it’s not always helpful to be that accessible.

Curious about the phenomenon of instant availability, I sat down for a Skype chat with Naomi Baron, American University professor of linguistics and author of the aptly titled book, Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World. While her book centers mostly around the evolution of language in the Digital Age, her most recent research points to the tenor of people’s thoughts around today’s mobile usage.

And it is surprising.

When asked to associate three words with the term mobile phone, the 18-24 age group Naomi surveyed said things like “annoying,” “addicted,” and “bondage”. When asked what they liked most and what they liked least about mobile phones, the number one answer was the same: contact. What they liked most was being able to call out if they wished (active). What they liked least was being the recipient of an unexpected call (reactive).

It takes two to text. But that is beside the point.

“People are feeling trapped by these devices,” Naomi relayed to me. Maybe being always on isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Whether in Sweden, Japan or Italy, Naomi found people to have a specific etiquette around mobile phone usage. It is considered rude to talk or even text in a movie theater in Sweden. Not surprisingly, Japan had the most uniform, formal etiquette. On the train, for instance, you are not to use it at all. Even text messaging is seen as disruptive. If someone does take a call, it is usually a business man who is then excused because, well, it was business. But things are changing. In 2001, 49% of those surveyed in Japan felt it was not okay to speak on their mobile phone on the street. By May 2008, Naomi found over 73% of those 18 to 24 years old said it was always or usual acceptable to do so.

In Sweden it is considered rude not to respond to a text message so many people feel obliged to text back within an hour. One Italian man revealed his strategy for dealing with the Always On phenomenon. “I put [my mobile phone] in a lead box to avoid being traced (so it does not signal that it is off, but not reachable).”

One American male revealed he is “too dependent” upon his mobile phone sometimes. An Italian female admitted she was much more tranquil when her cell phone was either broken or lost.

As we have seen, people have an ambivalent relationship with their mobile devices. We like the control, but prefer not to have to react to unwanted communication. In fact, as one Japanese person states, “Communication through [text messaging can] trick people’s minds as if they were engaged in real communication.” Texting a few jumbled phrases is not the same as having a face-to-face chat with a friend.

So how we can stop the madness of instant, unwanted availability and engage in the power of slow?

Create mobile-free zones. Seal your cell in the trunk of your car. Turn it off at meal times. Unplug for sixty minute increments. And, if you really have to, get a lead box like the Italian man in the survey. Regain the sense of control that instant communication once gave you so that you move towards a sometimes on, sometimes off, but always mindful life.

Last week in New York City, I sat down with Distracted author Maggie Jackson for a rare face-to-face interview. It was rare because most of the interviews I conduct are through the digital medium, either via phone, Skype or email. We enjoyed a cup of chamomille tea at a quaint Swedish cafe just off Columbus Circle where, during one of my previous visits, I had spotted Scarlett Johansson rushing by while chatting on her cell phone.

Once we got acquainted, our discussion quickly turned to one of the subjects in her book that is most pressing on my mind – the blending of man and distractedmachine. Digital devices are rapidly becoming extensions of ourselves. Quickly surveying the Manhattan landscape, you are guaranteed to see at least five people with a cell phone or BlackBerry pressed to their skull at any given moment. I had to ponder whether that man on the corner who was smiling into space was actually directing his humor at me or at the pinky-sized ear attachment that blinked periodically as he spoke.

“Our constant connectivity leaves little time for self-reflection,” Maggie aptly stated. She pointed to the surfeit of information we handle on a daily basis. “Virtuality [on some level] trumps ‘reality’.” We have built worlds based on digital data. And now it’s portable, too.

Cultivating our inner self comes when we give our thoughts time and space to unfold. Take the recent Miss USA debacle in which Miss California took a stand against gay marriage. It is said that Miss California felt she was the true winner of the Miss USA pagent because of the number of Facebook friend requests and tweets she received. If that is true, it does not bode well for our children’s generation. Internet ranking as the benchmark for morality? A scary prospect indeed.

“Twitter, by its nature, is very reductive. It accentuates the trivial,” Maggie suggested. She was quick to point out how Twitter exacerbates our love of the instantaneous. Instant gratification informs who we are as a nation. Don’t make me wait. Give me the answers now. Yet, at what cost?

I thought about this as I stepped off the plane at Munich’s International airport. The air was a blend of spring and serenity. People weren’t generally moving at the speed of a Tweet. I returned home to my non-existent couch that I had ordered seven weeks ago.

“You’ll receive it in the eighteenth calendar week,” the sales rep stated, not without a tinge of annoyance that I should expect it any sooner. I marveled at the cultural differences between the US and Germany for a moment. The power of slow shone through once again. Some things take time. We needn’t rush it. The furniture store hasn’t learned about citizen journalism or Twitter yet. Perhaps a new social media movement will provide the tipping point that will make the furniture industry in Europe self-adjust. Given the speed at which Germany moves, it may take decades before they catch up.

And that might not be such a bad thing, after all.

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