Electronic Design

Keeping Connected Sometimes Means Turning Off Mobile Media

Connected everywhere—that seems to be the goal in this wireless age. Consumers activate close to a billion new cell phones each year. And now, these phones offer data, music, video, and games as well as communications.

In this issue's cover story, Lou Frenzel cites predictions that mobile media eventually will account for 80% of the time we spend using the cell phone (see "The Cell Phone—Now That's Entertainment," p. 42). As I said in a recent column, there seems to be a generational divide (see "Bridging The Ap Gap In Mobile Video: Finding The Sweet Spot In Suburbia" at ED Online 12276 at www.electronicdesign.com). While the younger generation seems to enjoy all this connectivity, many older folks think we're already too connected for our own good.

Senior Technology Editor John Novellino has gotten tremendous response to his recent online commentary on a paint that can block cell-phone signals thanks to embedded copper-filled nanotubes (see "So You Won't Turn Off Your Cell Phone? Don't Worry—The Paint Will" at ED Online 12327). Imagine, writes John, a paint that can keep cell-phone signals from disturbing a movie you just paid eight bucks to see or a show or concert you paid $100 to attend.

Anticipating folks who would protest restrictions on their right to always be connected, John harkens back to the realities of life before cell phones: "One guy on the Internet said his child had a serious allergic reaction and his babysitting grandmother had to call the theater. Far be it from me to criticize someone's mother. But if your mother or any other sitter can't handle such a problem, should she be alone with the child anyway?"

John, who is retiring from Electronic Design after 24 years with the magazine, proudly admits that he is an "old-school" engineer and technology journalist. He keeps up with phone calls, e-mail, and correspondence while he's in the office, but he doesn't relate to BlackBerry (or "CrackBerry") and cell-phone addicts. He thinks the cell phone is a terrific tool for roadside emergencies, but he doesn't understand the need to chat while driving.

And for good reason. A study out this month from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that driver distraction causes nearly 80% of all crashes. The most common distraction is the use of cell phones.

The driving study tracked the behavior of 100 drivers via in-car video cameras and sensors. The researchers then observed pre-accident driver conditions like distraction, drowsiness, and error. The study coupled the in-car video with black-box data on speed, time-to-collision, and other readings from accelerometers, video-based lane-tracking systems, and sensors that tracked lead, side, and following distances. (For more on the study, see Drill Deeper 12455 at www.electronicdesign.com.)

Our "always connected" culture has other, more subtle drawbacks. Ad campaigns glorify the ability to leave the office and work wirelessly from the beach. But why would you want to bring work to the beach anyway? "Always connected" means being tethered to your business e-mail and phone, making it increasingly difficult to escape the pressures of the workplace.

Mobile devices also can be a detriment in "coffee break" sorts of situations. Just a few years ago, coffee breaks at conferences were perfect for networking, socializing, or simply chatting. Now, everybody seems to use these opportunities to conduct simultaneous remote—and isolated—conversations. Perhaps they have urgent business to attend to, but maybe they're simply avoiding the extra effort it takes to walk up to a fellow attendee at the coffee bar and introduce themselves.

Maybe the most insidious downside to always being connected is that the mobile masses may be sacrificing their "blue sky" time, the time when they can be alone with their thoughts. This time is great for creativity, reflection, peace, and problem solving. People used to take walks to think and figure things out. Now they use that time efficiently, squeezing in a phone call or two during that stroll from point A to point B.

I'd like to thank John and all of the other old-school thinkers who would like to see more rooms covered in signal-blocking paint. They're protecting the remaining civilities of a society that's rapidly disappearing. Also, I'd like to say best wishes to John on his retirement and thank him for his many years of dedication. I hope he has lots of time for blue-sky thinking, for connecting with people over a cup of coffee, for safe travels, and for lots of good movies without interruption!

TAGS: Mobile
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