Secondary Emissions

Information Theory Applied (Loosely) to Cell Phones, Ham Radio and General Aviation


There’s an article in the current MIT Technology Review, called “The Paradox of Wearable Technologies,” written by Don Norman. He describes himself as, “a cognitive science professor (UC San Diego, Northwestern) turned executive (Apple vice president) turned designer (IDEO Fellow), and author of 20 books, including Living with Complexity and The Design of Everyday Things.”  The article was triggered by Google Glass, and it’s about staying alive (or not) while you’re distracted by your personal technology.

All of us have different capabilities for functioning in the presence of distractions. At one end of the spectrum is the classic being “unable to walk and chew gum simultaneously.” The other is well represented by Norman’s friend and associate, Thad Starner, who was a technical advisor to Google Glass.

Starner confessed to Norman that he was “very bad at multitasking.” But he said that what he does when he attends a lecture with Google Glass is to, “put the physical focus of the display at the depth of the blackboard.”  Then since he has a special keyboard he keeps in his pocket, he could, “both pay attention and take good notes.” This was, Norman says, “far better than with paper and pencil, when his attention had to shift from notebook to blackboard.

“The result is that during any interaction, he is far more focused and attentive than many of my non-computer-wearing colleagues: the act of taking notes forces him to concentrate upon the content of the interaction. Moreover, he has records of his interactions, allowing him to review what took place.”


Distractions and Concentration

The article made me think about human communication in the face of distractions.  Even if I had a one-handed keyboard that I could type on in my pocket, I doubt whether it would work for me. I get distracted easily.  In fact, when I interview somebody at a tech company about a new product or technology, I need all my wits just to come up with follow-up questions. (What I do, is, I either rely on memory, nudged by the guy’s Power-Point foils, or, if I’m talking to a CTO or other exec I need to quote accurately, I record the session on my iPad and send the audio file to an outfit in India that transcribes it.) 

But getting back to everyday life, what this leads up to is the broad question of the distractions we create for ourselves with mobile technology.  Politicians and the news media these days tend to focus on cell phone use and texting in cars.  Both are acknowledged as bad, and a lot of people, myself included, would say that even hands-free phone conversations are too distracting for people driving in traffic.

My dilemma is, how do I reconcile that attitude with two of my hobbies: ham radio and flying?  Here in California, talking on a cell phone in any mode except hands-free (actually, touching it at all) is grounds for a big fine . . . but amateur radio operators using their two-way radio gear, are explicitly exempt.  And general-aviation pilots (like me before my FAA medical went away) couldn’t fly in most populated areas without a two-way radio.  What’s with that?  Are hams and pilots more mentally adept than the rest of humanity?

Not that I’ve noticed, so let me propose an alternative idea.  Let me call it the Shannon Effect, after the father of Information Theory:  The lower the information content, the less distracting the communication.

Take ham radio communications.  Unless you’re passing information in a disaster (or operating in a contest), one ham QSO is remarkably like every other QSO. You don’t need to take notes.  In fact, the next time you talk to this guy or that woman, the content of the conversation is going to be remarkably like the last time. The reason the legislature gave hams the exemption is because of the potential need for hams in emergencies, and you know what? We practice emergency drills just so that, in a disaster, the information we pass along is going to seem just as routine as possible.

Something similar happens in aviation. The information content of the messages is kept very low through the use of common phraseology.

“San Carlos Tower, Piper 9749Whiskey, Crystal Springs, with Juliet.”

“49Whiskey, cross mid-field at or above 1200, enter right traffic for three-zero.”

I repeat the instruction. Everybody on the frequency knows where I am and what I’m going to do.

Contrast that with cellular calls.  Every one is different.  You’ve got two people going back and forth, arguing their way through all possible options for something that’s got to happen just so, at some specific time, that involves countless decisions to be offered and rejected or accepted.  The information content is enormous and volatile. Do you really want somebody merging onto a freeway when their brain cells are that preoccupied?

TAGS: Analog
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