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By Jack Ganssle

A Problem Technology

Summary: The modern era is nearly defined by the devices that clamor for our attention. One, though, is guiltier than most.

Last month I wrote about the cubicle (http://www.eetimes.com/discussion/break-points/4208581/Cubicle-madness), an invention that has caused the productivity of legions of developers to plummet due to the never-ending stream of interruptions they encourage.

But there's another invention whose impact is even worse: the telephone. Now aided by email, Twitter, texting and a myriad of other technologies, the telephone and its ilk ensures that we never get a few minutes of peace in which to carefully think through a problem.

It's astonishing how rapidly the telephone has changed life. My grandmother grew up in Manhattan. When she was young she knew someone, across town, who had a phone.

When I was a kid it was illegal to own a phone in this country. Ma Bell leased them to consumers, and most homes had just one, black, rotary dial telephone. An out-of-state call (always for dad) brought the family to a standstill. "It's long distance" were the words that hushed all, and made us wonder what was of so much import it deserved such an expensive and rare call.

At the 1965 World's Fair in New York an exhibit touted the new push-button phone, and offered a chance to compare dialing speeds. My brother was so puzzled by this novelty that he was unable to "dial" a number in the maximum time allotted.

But now every desk has one. We all have at least one mobile phone at hand at all times, to the extent that cars are now telephone booths on wheels. (Remember telephone booths?). Here in Maryland the driver's use of a hand-held phone was outlawed a few weeks ago.

The mobile is no longer a phone; it's an appliance that feeds a great number of streams of chatter to us. Each beep, tweet, text and call is an interruption, one that breaks a train of thought (assuming one has the time to form such a train). Each is demanding of our attention. I constantly see people walking with their gaze entirely on the little screen, inevitably bumping into still objects or other pedestrians.

The modern telephone, especially mobile phone, is a marvelous device of great complexity that offers an amazing array of capabilities. But it's a tool. We have a responsibility to manage it, like any tool, for both safety and to maximize our productivity.

I'm reminded of a story: An old farmer and a young farmer are talking about farm-lore, and the old farmer's phone starts to ring. The old guy just keeps talking about herbicides and hybrids, until the youngster interrupts "Aren't you going to answer that?"

"What fer?" Says the old-timer.

"Why, 'cause it's ringing. Ain't you gonna get it?" asks the younger.

The older farmer sighs and knowingly shakes his head. "Nope". he says. Then he looks the younger in the eye to make sure he understands, "Ya see, I bought that phone for MY convenience."

Most of us regard the ringing phone as an emergency. Drop whatever you're doing and grab it! Stop all conversation, abandon the meeting, and respond to what is all too often some salesman pushing cheap phone services.

Manage it responsibly.

Published October 14, 2010