Smartphone distractions may produce dumb users

Updated: 2013-06-16 07:41

(The New York Times)

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Smartphone distractions may produce dumb users

Writers have long taken up residency at woodsy retreats to block out the outside world and focus on the blank page, but it's getting harder to keep out the wired world. Some of those retreats have allowed wireless access into writing studios, while others confine the ability to surf the Web to their libraries.

"People are sometimes surprised by their own reaction" to going offline, David Macy, the MacDowell resident director, told The Times. "I think there's even a medical name for it, or maybe it's (the satirical newspaper) The Onion's name for it: 'anxiety provoked by not being in a wireless hot spot.'"

Some writers have installed software programs like Freedom and SelfControl to try to limit their Internet browsing. Jonathan Franzen, the American novelist, removed his computer's wireless card and glued its Ethernet cable in place and then cut the cable off to convert it into an Internet-free writing machine, The Times reported.

The goal to minimize distractions is more than a noble one. Interruptions make us dumber, according to research by the Human-Computer Interaction Lab at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Researchers there set out to measure the brain power lost when someone is interrupted - either by a phone call or e-mail, the authors Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson reported in The Times. When subjects were told to expect a distraction and were interrupted during the course of a test, they did much worse than subjects who were left alone. The distracted/interrupted group answered correctly 20 percent less often than uninterrupted group.

"There is some evidence that we're not just suckers for that new text message or addicted to it," Sullivan and Thompson wrote. "It's actually robbing us of brain power too."

The problem of monitoring a cellphone and walk without bumping into things is the one Google was hoping to solve by making Glass. Other companies are also making it easier to use the phone during other activities, the psychologists Daniel J. Simons and Christopher F. Chabris reported in The Times. In April, Chevrolet advertised its "eyes-free and hands-free integration" with the iPhone's Siri voice-command interface.

These technologies seem like ideal solutions, letting you interact with your smartphone while staying alert to your surroundings, but the brain does not work that way.

"The problem is that looking is not the same as seeing," Simons and Chabris wrote, "and people make wrong assumptions about what will grab their attention."

Experiments have shown that people fail to notice things as obvious as a person in a gorilla suit when their attention is diverted. "Researchers using eye-tracking devices found that people can miss the gorilla suit even when they look right at it," Simon and Chabris said. "This phenomena of 'inattentional blindness' shows that what we see depends not just on where we look but also how we focus our attention."

Few writers would give up the research capabilities the Internet offers, and the age of wearable computing is upon us, but new technology is evolving faster than our ability to manage it.

"Google Glass may allow users to do amazing things," Simon and Chabris wrote, "but it does not abolish the limits on the human ability to pay attention." Tom Brady

(China Daily 06/16/2013 page9)