Here’s your task, dial the number 901 475 9286 onto a tiny little keyboard while simultaneously trying to listen to the radio DJ and drive your car out onto a busy street. Be sure not to miss those preschoolers walking along on your right or the two old ladies ambulating up on your left. According to the National Safety Council, fully 1 in 4 automobile accidents are now caused by people talking or texting on a cell phone. That’s 1.6 million crashing cars every year, several thousand of which end up with an innocent person going to the morgue. My six-year-old son and I nearly became one of those statistics recently. Our near assassin, a college girl typing into her cell phone while she blasted her two ton vehicle out of a driveway. It was my paying attention to her and screeching to a halt that saved our lives. She barely noticed the shocked expression on my face, and didn’t even stop to apologize; just kept blabbing on her cell phone.
Of course, you’ve heard about this problem. But have you stopped using your cell phone while you’re driving? I haven’t, and I am not much of a cell phone user (I use about 20 pay-as-you go minutes a week, but sometimes my phone rings while I’m driving, and who knows, it might be “important!”)
Cell phones don't (just) kill people!
The problems of cell phones aren’t limited to their role as electronic accomplices in vehicular homicides. They interrupt the flow of everyday relationships, buzzing off in the middle of business meetings and pleasant conversations between friends. Right at this moment, I’m sure that they’re causing at least one case of coitus interruptus. “Oops. Gotta take this. It’s important.” Try to keep up that, umm, romantic feeling.
It’s not just cell phones that have us ignoring the world around us. At a recent research meeting involving 3 graduate students and 3 faculty members, there was a 20 minute spell during which one of the grad students and one of the faculty members were continuously typing away on their personal computers, reading their emails while the rest of our small group conversed about a problem the group needed to solve. I’m again not completely innocent in this regard, I often do a quick check on my email during such meetings (again, never know when something “important” might come in).
I’ll give up my cell phone when they pry it from the cold dead hands of that pedestrian I just ran over!
Peter Crabb is a psychology professor at Penn State’s Hazelton campus. For years, he’s done research on the psychological dangers of technology. Along with coauthor Steven Stern, Crabb recently published an intriguing paper on what he calls “technology traps.” Crabb and Stern argue that people often become addicted to technologies without realizing some of the harmful effects those technologies can have for their psychological health, for society, and for the environment. There are several categories of technology traps. Here are four of them:
- The Incompetence Trap – Important skills may atrophy when we rely too much on technologies. Ready-to-eat foods produced a generation of people who never learned basic cooking proficiencies, for example, and calculators are undermining modern children’s motivation to learn basic math skills.
- The Self-Miscontrol trap. Some technological advances, including cell phones, videogames, and the internet, have become truly addicting. College students actually find it difficult to keep their hands and eyes off their cell phones, or to ignore their email, during their classes. Many, like my graduate student who was reading her email during our research meeting, believe they can just “multi-task.” But human attention is notoriously limited to 7 ± 2 bits of information at a time, so if you try to listen to music, watch TV, surf the internet, or read your email while doing your homework, you won’t do nearly as good a job as if you focus your attention. And if you try to type information into your cell phone or GPS while driving, you, or someone else, may just end up in the hospital. Incidentally, as I was writing this up, I stopped several times to check my email.
- The Misbehavior Trap – technologies can make it easier to break rules, or act impolitely, in ways you might never do otherwise. Sitting in the anonymity of their own room, people blast off rude emails using words and ad hominem framings they’d never do to someone else’s face. Sitting behind the wheel of a car, my otherwise civilized self has occasionally given the finger to a total stranger. If you bought a gun to make you feel safer, you are several times more likely to commit homicide. Guns, like cars, don’t kill people, and computers don’t write racist slurs, but they make acting out a whole lot easier for people who might otherwise inhibit their antisocial impulses.
- The Environmental Degradation Trap – Crabb and Stern note that all the environmental problems of our time– air pollution, global warming, deforestation, and species extinction— can be traced to our abuse of technologies. In combination with the capitalistic idea of unlimited growth, they argue that our addiction to unsustainable technologies is “fouling the planetary nest and risking unprecedented global catastrophe.” C’mon, I only have a little cell-phone (oh, and a car, and an air-conditioned house in the desert equipped with washing machine, dryer, dishwasher, televisions, computers, and a gadzillion little devices that keep on running even when I push the off button).
Who’s to blame?
Crabb and Stern agree that the endusers of technology are ultimately to blame, but also argue that businesses that produce these technologies are not forthcoming about the potential hazards. Because businesses run on a short-term profit motive, they’re unlikely to research the dangers with enthusiasm, and because the congress decontrolled the Office of Technology Assessment a few years back, there aren’t many external incentives for businesses to do so. Crabb believes it’s ultimately the government’s responsibility, but the article ends with reference to Jared Diamond’s book Collapse, which details how several civilizations have invented themselves into extinction. As they understate it: “History shows that societies are not incapable of making poor choices about how to manage their way of life.”
Could psychologists help? Now that’s a whole other question, but for now, gotta go, my cell phone is ringing, and it might be important.
Crabb, P.B, & Stern, S.E. (2010). Technology traps: Who is responsible? International Journal of Technoethics, 1, 19-26.
Diamond, J. (2005). Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Penguin.
Related posts on technology and behavior
Modern technology as intimacy's enemy
How Al Gore, James Cameron, and YOU are destroying the earth.
Videogames, fine art, and Roger Ebert's surprising controversy.
P.S. If you were offended by my poking fun at the NRA's bumper sticker slogans, read the following account of the logic underlying their defense of those ever-popular technological innovations that actually are designed to kill people:
Henigan, D.A. (2009). Lethal logic: Exploding the myths that paralyze American gun policy. Washington, DC: Potomac Books.