Kiss your PDA goodbye

I don’t own a cell phone. I admit that like I’d admit a drug habit.

Most people politely smile when I tell them that. Others give me an incredulous squint as if to say, Don’t you know it’s 2007?

It’s slightly embarrassing, considering I’m the editor of a publication called CommNet, but I’ve never truly felt the need to own one. People can reach me at my home phone or office phone; at my home e-mail or work e-mail. I’m never terribly far away from any of those options and all of them can be checked remotely. My job doesn’t necessitate I own a cell phone. I’m not married and I don’t have any kids. The chances of me receiving an emergency call are slim. My partner doesn’t carry a cell phone either (though admittedly she’s thinking about reactivating her old phone).

I can pour on the excuses till the cows come home, but I feel somewhat vindicated by recent research and a rising tide of opinion: wireless devices are ruining our lives.

It’s hardly a new argument. In the decade that cell phones have been a reality, people have complained that they can be a nuisance, both to those who use them and others who have to hear the litany of half-conversations held in public places.

Perhaps cell phones by themselves wouldn’t be so bad, but it’s when you add PDAs, BlackBerries (“crackberries”), portable gaming units, MP3 players and devices that combine any and all of that functionality that the human brain begins to feel taxed.

An article in the April issue of The Walrus examines the issue in-depth and comes to conclusion that people just aren’t wired to handle that much information. Forgetting is good, John Lorinc, the article’s author, reminds us. Forgetting helps us let go of extraneous information and retain that which we need. Portable access to the Internet often accomplishes the opposite.

“The research on cognitive overload and multi-tasking reveals that our brains are ill equipped to function effectively in an information-saturated digital environment by constant disruptions,” he writes. “While there’s much hype about how young people weaned on the Internet and video games develop neural circuits that allow them concentrate on many tasks at once, the science of interruptions suggests our brains aren’t nearly so plastic.”

It can be difficult to present any kind of anti-technology argument without coming off like a Luddite, but it’s more convincing when the users themselves feel the same way. In a recent poll of just over 1,000 Americans conducted by Zogby International, 70 per cent believe a person can become addicted to a BlackBerry, 75 per cent said that using a PDA in a restaurant or meeting is rude, and 80 per cent would agree to ban the use Internet-enabled devices while driving.

The latter seems like a no-brainer, but it was only a few years ago that I was receiving press releases touting “e-mail while driving” functionality as if it were actually a good thing.

The upshot of all this is, the damage is done. Asking people to give up checking their e-mail in the car is like asking them to give up the car itself. Once a device has become embedded into a society it would be painful to all concerned to attempt to remove it altogether. But some people can be convinced the leave the car at home once in a while and bike to the store. Maybe they can leave the BlackBerry at home too.

Before I sign off, I should inform you that this is my last issue as editor of CommNet. Since ownership of my company changed hands from Transcontinental Media to IT World Canada I’ve been tasked with running other online newsletters. CommNet will be placed in capable hands of Dave Webb. Be nice to Dave. He does owns a cell phone.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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