If you drive to the store for a loaf of bread and forget your phone, do you feel adrift? Do you worry that if you don’t check your computer every 15 minutes, you’ll miss the news that Martians just landed in Petaluma?
Welcome to my world. And let me introduce you to Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Matt Richtel. Here’s what Richtel said last week on the public radio program, “Here and Now”:
“It goes all the way back to B.F. Skinner’s studies with rats. There are rats in cages that would press a lever to get food, but they would never know which press of the lever would bring food, so they would press the lever all the time. … We (humans) never know which press on our devices is going to bring the good email, the good text, the good information. So we become conditioned to press it all the time.”
This is a big conversation in our family. When we’re locked on to our phones, computers and iPads, when are we tapping into the power of the Internet? And when are we becoming rats in a cage, pushing the lever over and over again?
Google “addicted to our devices,” and you’ll get 2,020,000 results. In the information age, scientists — and the rest of us, too — are still trying to understand all the ways that the rush of new technologies is messing with us.
Admit it: Some time in the past week you were annoyed because someone nearby was focused on his or her phone — and then, a few minutes later, you caught yourself checking your own phone. (I attended several meetings last week, and in every one, I found time to check my phone, not once but several times. If I was being rude, at least I wasn’t alone.)
It would be pleasant to believe that our attraction for these devices leads to social miscues and nothing more. But Richtel, a New York Times reporter, is here to testify that our preoccupations can lead to tragic outcomes, too.
Richtel won the Pulitzer Prize in Journalism in 2010 for a series of stories about distracted drivers, and now he’s written a book — “A Deadly Wandering” — about a Utah teenager who was texting prior to a traffic accident in which two men died.
Richtel tells the story of how remorse led the young man to become a champion of laws banning texting while driving, and he introduces us to what researchers call “inattention blindness.” Even after we’re finished using our devices, experts told Richtel, there remains a period of time in which we are distracted.
“The tragedy was the product of a powerful dynamic, one that elite scientists have been scrambling to understand, even as it is intensifying,” Richtel writes. “It is a clash between technology and the human brain.”
In the public radio interview, Richtel said virtually everyone knows that texting is dangerous, and yet many still do it.
In our family, we shared this radio interview (available online, of course) along with a September commentary by Clay Shirky, who teaches social media at New York University.
As an early advocate of a free and open Internet, Shirky describes himself as “an unlikely candidate for Internet censor.” And yet he now requires students to stow their laptops and phones during class.