Why a Smartphone is a Dumb Idea

Opinion CategoryA week’s worth of New York Times newspapers contains more information and knowledge than the average person in medieval times saw in their entire life. In our current golden age of technology, we as human beings have come to embrace the notion of computers, and the idea that information is a commodity that must be available immediately. Products on the market in the technology sector are increasingly complex in scope and connectivity, and give us unprecedented access to an enormous yet speedily growing body of information. Nowhere is this trend more glaringly apparent than the recent developments in mobile phone technology.

Mainstream mobile phones have only been in existence for 25 years, and have steadily gained in popularity according to the CTIA. Since that time, mobile phones have been upgraded to “smartphones” which include everything from cameras, to email, web browsing, GPS navigation, and music and video playback. Also, in the past 5-10 years there has been a meteoric rise in the advent of text messaging, with 2007 data showing the number of texts messages sent per day at over 1 billion. Why would having so much available connectivity be a bad idea?

SmartphoneThe answer is interruptions. Despite our newfound love of multitasking, the human brain is not very good at it. In 1976, the average adult had an attention span of roughly 15-20 minutes, according to Johnstone and Percival. According to most accounts that number has been steadily shrinking, by some studies down to a paltry 7 minutes. As we are interrupted, time is lost in something called a “context switch” in computing terms, when we have to re-orient our thought process to the new stimulus being presented, and then a second context switch has to occur to return back to the original project at hand. As the brain returns to the original project, however, it takes even more time to commit back to full focus, because our attention has now been split between the project and the interruption. Anybody who has had a deep train of thought interrupted by a phone call knows how diffucult it can be to regain that idea once the phone call is over. Interruptions therefore present a formidable challenge to productivity, as has been confirmed by this Basex study, which estimates that 28% of our work day is spent handling interruptions, resulting in almost $600 billion worth of lost wages. The more interruptions we have during the day, the less productive we can be, and the less money we can make.

From this framepoint, a device that buzzes or makes noise every time an email, text, voicemail, or picture message arrives is essentially an interruption machine. Establishing and maintaining a steady productive focus is almost impossible under these circumstances. Most interruptions are not necessary, either. Standard email etiquette dictates that messages should be sent a reply within 24 hours. Simply taking 10 minutes twice a day to check, manage, and respond to emails falls well within that parameter. Also, if a project involves deep concentration and focus, then the interruption machine must be turned off, and potential distractors like web surfing need to be limited as best as possible. Operating in this manner could help to boost productivity and decrease the constant stress of worrying about all things digital.

For the record, mobile phones are not a bad tool. Being able to make and receive an important phone call in a time of need is definitely advantageous. Some of the other functionality of modern phones, such as the ability to play music or take pictures, are excellent from a recreational standpoint. However, when it comes to work and productivity, a smartphone is undoubtedly a dumb idea.

Recommended Reading

Bittman M. I Need a Virtual Break. No, Really. New York Times. March 2, 2008.

Richtel M. Lost in E-Mail, Tech Firms Face Self-Made Beast. New York Times. June 14, 2008.

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  • Jason Victor

    I live this every day. If it’s not email, instant messages, phone calls, mobile phone calls, and text messages … it’s people stopping by for quick questions. Luckily, there’s no Facebook, My Space, or home email accounts at work, or it would be even more distracting!

    I heard somewhere that all of this “context switching” could be one factor in Alzheimer’s in the future, but I cannot point to any study at the moment to back this up.

  • I’m not commenting on this item, because I didn’t get past the first sentence. I would like to comment on the first sentence, though, because it’s clearly arrogant nonsense.

    So a medieval person had much less knowledge than I do, simply because he didn’t know how to drive a car, or make a comment on a blog? And because he didn’t know about national politics, or economics, or what’s going on in Gaza?

    Let me twist it around. Do you know how to make a cart, or a house, or a plough? Do you have knowledge of the medicinal properties of herbs? Do you know how to cook? Are you intimately acquainted with the material properties of wood, or rushes, or clay? Do you have extensive knowledge of your family history, and know off-by-heart many songs and folk tales? Do you know how to grow cereals and vegetables? The right time of year to pick brambles or mushrooms? The behaviour of woodland animals and birds. Would you be able to have a good look at a cow or horse, and know if it was a good buy or not?



  • Thank you for the comment Neil, but I think you misrepresent my point. I was not trying to imply that medieval people were more or less intelligent than we are today, but rather making a comment on differences in access to information between those times and our times. The fact of the matter is that presently, most of your questions could be answered with about 15 minutes of research on Google. I firmly stand by my assertion that having such easy access to information sets a concerning precedent for productivity-robbing interruptions in our daily lives.

  • Ralph Denson

    While i will agree that we currently have greater access to info than did a person in medieval times. Neil’s comments stand, the assertion that their is more information in a week of NY Times is obviously false. Im sure you can find a better example to start your article off with. I for one find it hard to read the rest on any article when they start off with exaggerations like this,

Sajid Surve, DO

Sajid Surve, DO, is a physiatrist, acupuncturist, and osteopath who specializes in musculoskeletal medicine and integrative medicine.

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