The Paradox of Mobile: In the Real World, But Ignoring It?

Asa Raskin suggests that in many instances when we think we are multitasking, one of the tasks is just something automatic:

We can talk on a cell phone while driving to work, and we can compose complex sentences while typing. But, if you stop to reflect on it, you can only do those things at the same time because at least one of them is automatic. In the first case driving is automatic, and in the second case typing is automatic. You’ve done them so often that you’ve habituated to them: doing them doesn’t require any thinking.

Clark MacLeod points out the negative – and potentially disastrous – consequences of the behavior described in Raskin’s theory:

What you are actually doing is cycling through tasks in quick succession which he warns comes at the risk of losing your train of thought. This results in lower productivity, lower information retention, and in the case of driving while using your mobile, possible disaster.

In spite of the downsides, and even dangers, we as a society continue to multitask. Why? Paul Levinson, professor of media studies at Fordham University in New York, argues that there is a fundamental relationship between communication and transportation – every major advance in communication, he says, has been accompanied by an advance in transporation:

But the balance became unhinged in the last decades of the 20th century. The Web took us all over the world – in cyberspace. Being anywhere we pleased in information required us to be seated behind a desk in our home or office. Laptop computers allowed us to write on a park bench, but not telecommunicate.

The mobile phone came to the rescue. It is not of course a device of transport, but communication. But unlike the Internet, the mobile phone puts us back into the real world, and allows us to use every mode of transport, go anywhere physically, while we keep in touch with the rest of the world of information.

The iPad 3G might be the ultimate example of Levinson’s argument, because it combines the ability to access information anywhere, with the power and capability associated with a computer, not a phone. It has all the portability of a mobile phone, but really functions as a reasonably powerful computer.

At a recent MIT Communications Forum, James Katz, professor of communication and director of Rutgers University’s Center for Mobile Communications Studies, suggested that the ability to carry such powerful communication tools with us everywhere we go has created a new set of behaviors that are widespread, even before they have been accepted as social norms:

Cell phones seem to prioritize communication with distant people over those sharing one’s space, and the ethics of this new behavior are not universally agreed upon.

Image Credit: San Diego Shooter

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