There is no doubt about it: When it comes to things digital I am old-school. Sure, I have a cell phone and I use e-mail. This column is being composed on a computer. But compared with the technophiles I see at airports, hotels and business gatherings, I may as well be writing with a quill.
It's a generational thing. We had manual typewriters when I was young. Phones were rotary-dialed, and datebooks involved a pen and paper. People answered phone calls, even if it meant just writing down a message. Instead of e-mailing a colleague, you got up and walked over to impart information in person.
Pretty soon most of the workforce will think of such activities as history as ancient as the Dead Sea Scrolls, but the work got done.
My lack of technological savvy seems to know no bounds. One time I was staying at an ultramodern hotel on the West Coast that was wired up like the CIA headquarters. It was all very impressive, but I knew it was overkill the moment I realized I couldn't turn the TV on. A little thing like an on/off button would have helped, but that's too obvious, I guess. After the front desk told me what to do, I then realized I couldn't change channels without further instruction. Later, trying to turn the shower on, none of the handles seemed to work. Again, I had to call to find out what to do. I felt like an idiot until later that day at a cocktail party in the hotel I discovered others had had the same problems I had encountered. Labeling switches with common names like "on" or "hot" is apparently not de rigueur if you want to be cutting-edge.
Many people don't seem to share my e-phobia. Every morning my dog and I head out to a park where we meet up with other dogs and their owners. We humans chat while the dogs race around. Two of these humans spend all their time talking about the gizmos they've just added to their computers and how well they work. I have no idea what these devices do, but they sure sound essential when those guys are talking.
One day, however, one of this pair asked the other if he had figured out how to use his new TiVo. It turns out both of them are stumped. That caught my interest because one of these guys works for a big computer outfit. If he can't work a device used by millions to record their TV shows, maybe I'm not so technologically challenged after all, I thought.
These anecdotes illustrate what a spate of new studies show-not all of the much-heralded advances in microcircuitry are really working for us. A recent article in BusinessWeek magazine was titled, "Take a vacation from your BlackBerry: Gadgets may or may not boost productivity, but they sure boost errors and stress." The piece posed two key questions: Are these devices really delivering on their promise of heightened productivity? And can gadgets enable one employee to do the work of two? Apparently within the academic community the answer is far from a resounding yes. David Greenfield, director of the Center for Internet Studies, says the idea that gadgets make us more efficient "is a scam, an illusion."
The kind of multitasking where you talk on a cell phone while reading an instant message on your personal digital assistant can easily lead to crucial errors and wasted time, he says. Multitasking short-circuits attention spans, induces a sort of "air traffic controller-like" stress and increases the time it takes to accomplish even the most basic tasks by up to 50% or more.
David Meyer, a University of Michigan psychology professor, says this barrage of e-messaging can kick in our "dopamine-reward system," providing a pleasure-inducing hit that for an estimated 6% of Internet users has become clinically addictive.
Harvard Medical School psychiatry instructor Edward Hallowell describes a new epidemic he calls ADT: attention deficit trait. Constant electronic messaging "dilutes performance and increases irritability," he says. Many people who once were steady managers are fast becoming disorganized underachievers. "I'm not pro- or con-technology, but this is a challenge we have never faced before," Hallowell adds.
And Hamilton College anthropologist Douglas Raybeck warns, "We aren't built for continually processing a great mountain of information."
In response to that biological imperative, it seems that people's instincts might be kicking in. There is now a "quiet car" on Amtrak trains. Some organizations are adopting e-mail holidays along with voice-mail-free days. On one such day, a CEO said, "Many of my managers came to me and said that because of the holiday they talked to some of their employees they haven't seen for months." Teenagers are holding cell-phone-free, no-text-messaging-allowed parties. Now that seems like a great idea.
Here's a bad idea: The Federal Aviation Administration is paving the way for cell phone use during flights. I can see why businesspeople want to be in touch, but that was one of the few quiet zones left on Earth.
This is another holiday season when new devices of all kinds are at the top of everyone's wish list. A new kind of messaging device seems to come out every day. Maybe, just maybe, we should slow down and consider what all these sophisticated gadgets are doing to us and our organizations.
Lauer is the author of two books, Reach for the Stars and Soar with the Eagles, and is an experienced guest lecturer available for public speaking engagements. For more information, go to chucklauer.com.