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The cognitive price of constant connectivity

May 13, 2009

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs finally reached the point of extreme frustration after three incidents of cell phone interruptions during a difficult press briefing. While turning one’s cell phone on silent or even vibrate should be an obvious point to most of humanity lucky enough to see the inside of the White House, let alone to be part of a press briefing, it certainly wasn’t obvious to the reporters (yes, there was more than one offender!) While Gibbs ultimately made light of the situation the lack of courtesy and personal control exercised by the reporters over their devices is shameful and all too common in our society.

Khalil (2006) points out that “human attention is becoming the most precious and scarce resource” that demands “constant cognitive attention from the user and also serve[s] as a frequent source of interruption and distraction” (p. 19). Khalil (2006) also points out that the impact of the interruption not only diverts attention from the task at hand but that the effects of the interruption go on longer than the actual event itself. There is a great deal of support for Khalil’s (2006) research indicating cell phone interruption issues are not new and certainly not isolated.

Many organizations have enacted “Blackberry free zones” or rules for electronic device usage during meetings and it is hard not to wonder why it is necessary to proscribe behavioral norms for professionals who probably should know better. Khalil (2006) points to the “Ten Commandments of mobile phone etiquette” as being a commendable idea that is difficult to enforce. Short of illegal jamming devices, it is quite difficult to go anywhere without the annoyance of a cell phone ring.

The question of how much attention is being paid to the task at hand while texting or reading emails or being interrupted by calls from one’s BFF is an important one. If employees are allowing their cognitive processes to turn away from their work there are potentially serious consequences such as industrial accidents or opportunities for miscommunication. Consider the fact that human brains are no more adept at recovering from distraction than they ever have been and to expect that distractions have zero impact of one’s ability to do their job is not only foolish, it’s reckless.

The bottom line questions: if we’re always distracted and not focused on what we should be doing, how well could we possibly be performing? What is the cognitive price of constant connectivity to ourselves and our organizations? Further, what is the price of the cognitive disruptions to our safety and the safety of others? Does being perpetually distracted increase the competitive advantage of our organizations? The answers, unfortunately, reside in more rule-making and enforcement in organizations as it seems that self-regulation of such behavior will not prevail.

Resources

Khalil, A. (2006). Context-aware telephony and its users: Methods to improve the accuracy of mobile device interruptions. Ph.D. dissertation, Indiana University, United States — Indiana. Retrieved May 13, 2009, from Dissertations & Theses: A&I database. (Publication No. AAT 3210052).

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