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2010 October 18 - 12:00 am

TECHNOLOGY TODAY: Portable Connections Challenge Our Focus in the Internet Age

One of the most salient aspects of technology is the importance of using it appropriately. Technology, whether digital or not, should improve, not degrade, the quality of our lives.

This has been true since at least the Industrial Revolution, and it’s every bit as true today during the Digital Revolution. Smart phones, digital media players, touchpad devices, netbooks and other portable computers, desktop PCs, and other devices we endow with intelligent capabilities can make us do really dumb things if we’re not careful.

A new study by Harris Interactive (www.harrisinteractive.com) illustrates some of the more boneheaded attitudes and activities spawned by smart devices.

Fully 56 percent of Americans feel it’s acceptable to be online or otherwise plugged in to one of their digital devices during vacations, 41 percent during dinner at home with family and friends, 29 percent during their honeymoon, 25 percent when dining at a restaurant, 22 percent during sex, 8 percent during a religious service and 6 percent during a wedding.

Almost all of us have probably seen those who seem addicted to their devices, refusing to go anywhere without them. Some of us face challenges raising children so they learn to enjoy the physically and emotionally healthy pleasures of riding bikes, playing ball, skipping rope and meeting friends in person to do things other than walking around the mall listening in isolation to their iPods or using their smart phones to text friends elsewhere about what they’re doing with the friends that they’re largely ignoring.

To a parent, what’s more frustrating than talking with your child about something of importance only to discover that while you thought he was listening he was texting with his friends. It’s not only kids who are guilty. A friend of one of my children met for dinner with her father, recently divorced from her mother. After noticing that her father was texting his girlfriend one too many times, she stormed out of the restaurant. Her father is a doctor.

Matters go from frustrating to deadly when driving enters the mix. It’s mindboggling to think you can safely drive while continuously taking your eyes off the road to look down at your device to read and type into it, but despite the increasing numbers of states and municipalities passing laws against the practice, texting while driving continues.

The statistics are as frightening as the practice itself. Texting while driving increases the chances of an accident 23 times, or 2300 percent, according to a study by the Virginia Tech Driving Institute. This compares to dialing a cell phone to talk orally, which increases the risk of an accident while driving 2.8 times, or 280 percent. Texting while driving is considerably more dangerous even than driving while drunk.

It’s typically, though not always, younger people who engage in these seriously risky activities. Approximately 28 percent of all auto crashes in the U.S. in 2008 were caused by drivers aged 18 to 29 who admitted to texting while driving, according to statistics compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The current generation of younger people has drifted about as far as you can from the Sixties mantra of “Be here now.” The inability to focus on whatever task is currently at hand may be the most far-reaching negative of them all. We’re raising a generation of multitaskers who can’t pay attention to what they’re doing for more than a few minutes. How would you like to be operated on by a surgeon afflicted by a digitally engendered attention deficit disorder or to have future bridges and skyscrapers designed by such people?

Social scientists use the term “inattentional blindness” in regards to this issue, and it means the inability to be adequately perceptive to your immediate environment and to anticipate expected consequences because you’re sidetracked by a secondary task.

It’s not all gloom and doom, of course. Self-awareness is half the battle, both individual awareness and societal awareness. Excesses often accompany new technology until a balance is reached on how to best integrate it into lives and nations.

Appropriate technology is the byword. Technology is neither good nor bad, whether you’re talking about digital communication or nuclear fusion. Homo habilis, or “Handy Man,” emerging some 2.5 million years ago, the first hominid clearly recognizable as us, was also the first to make and regularly use advanced stone tools.

Those tools were used to better provide for families, and in all likelihood, they were also used for weapons to raid neighboring tribes.

Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at reidgold@comcast.net or www.reidgoldsborough.com.

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