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Tech Distractions

Summary: The Amish are said to want to manage, rather than reject, technology. That's not a bad idea to emulate.

In the airports of China, the US, India, Europe and pretty much everywhere else one thing is common: you have to be very alert to avoid the masses of people walking around while staring, transfixed, into their mobile devices.

The roads of the world are filled with drivers yakking on their phones and texting/emailing friends and associates. Not a few even update Facebook pages while behind the wheel. According to "The Problem With Hands-Free Dashboard Cellphones" (Communications of the ACM, April 2013) GM is modifying OnStar to allow drivers to do hands-free Facebook updates at highway speeds. One wonders what makes a social media update more important than road safety.

A helicopter accident that killed four people in 2011 may be, in part, attributable to the pilot's texting.

25 people were killed in 2008 when a railroad engineer felt his text messages were more important than safety, and he missed a red signal.

A recent news story indicated that pedestrian fatalities in Virginia have jumped by a third in one year, attributable at least in part to the attention-sucking vortex of the LCD screen. Authorities are concerned about the drivers, of course, but apparently not a few of these accidents come from people walking, distracted by their phone, through busy intersections.

At least one app displays the scene ahead, so those whose heads are buried in the e-world can see where they are going.

Distractions are hardly new; plenty of young drivers have rear-ended others while fiddling with the radio. Years ago a funny slide show, clearly photoshopped, correlated crashes to male drivers ogling pretty women.

Maybe this is Darwin at work. Alas, the victims are often innocents who just happen to be in the path of someone else's distraction.

Then there's the general rudeness which is amplified by these devices. The person who won't get off the phone while checking out of the store. Those who insist on non-stop texting in meetings. A recent article said there's a push on to educate young job seekers that, no, it's generally not a good idea to take text messages in the middle of a job interview.

Any technology can be abused. I well remember my dad's red face over our tying up the single land-line with long conversations with our girlfriends. But that wired tether limited the problems. Now, the entire world is a phone booth and Internet cafe.

The mobile world we engineers have created is truly astonishing. A smart phone is a breath-taking device; a nexus of vast amounts of technology that simply couldn't have been imagined just a handful of years ago. It probably has a hundred billion or more transistors in a pocket-sized form factor. It's great to be accessible out of the office. If it weren't for texting I'd hardly ever hear from my kids.

Our technology empowers us in many important ways. But, as someone said (Voltaire?), with great power comes great responsibility. Who is in charge? The device or common sense?

I fear that the tech is advancing faster that we can - or chose to - adapt to it.

What's your take?

Published April 9, 2013