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Aging Out of a Blackberry World

Dr. Howard Fillit is a geriatrician, a neuroscientist and a professor at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine. Among other affiliations, he is also executive director of the Institute for the Study of Aging which funds research on the discovery and drug development for Alzheimer's Disease.

I was reminded of him yesterday while reading a New York Times story by Alex Williams about the culture clash between those who tap, tap, tap at their Blackberries and other smartphones during meetings, and those who think it is rude.

“...a spirited debate about etiquette has broken out. Traditionalists say the use of BlackBerrys and iPhones in meetings is as gauche as ordering out for pizza. Techno-evangelists insist that to ignore real-time text messages in a need-it-yesterday world is to invite peril.”

Remember, in the prehistoric days of 2004 or so, when one-sided, cell phone conversations nearly caused fist fights between oh-so-self-important technology mavens and everyone else in the room, restaurant or rail car? No more.

Nowadays, the noise level has given way to a new annoyance as the courtesy-challenged silently squint at two-inch screens while their thumbs race over tiny keyboard buttons and you know they haven't heard a word you've said. Williams continues:

“It is routine for Washington officials to bow heads silently around a conference table — not praying — while others are speaking, said Philippe Reines, a senior adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Although BlackBerrys are banned in certain areas of the State Department headquarters for security reasons, their use is epidemic where they are allowed.

“'You’ll have half the participants BlackBerrying each other as a submeeting, with a running commentary on the primary meeting,' Mr. Reines said. 'BlackBerrys have become like cartoon thought bubbles.'”

Now that's scary. When there is a discussion about North Korean missiles, for example, I want everyone at the table paying attention.

Blackberrys have not invaded every space. Yet. Although many attendees at the Age Boom Academy I attended took notes on their laptops, there were no Blackberrys or even dumb cell phones in view during our all-day sessions. It was understood, without admonition, that they were unacceptable and I was among half a dozen attendees, during the first day or two, who were mortified when, having forgotten to turn them off, our phones rang out in the middle of a presentation.

But such attention to speakers is now, apparently, the exception. Several friends with whom I visited in New York – not only young ones - placed their Blackberrys on the table as we settled into our chairs for lunch or dinner and responded to messages with a dip of their head and a “Sorry, this is important.” Meanwhile, the thread of our conversation was lost and the meal felt disjointed and off-center – like reading a column of unrelated Twitter posts.

There comes a time, I think, when you realize the world of work has passed you by, when you are no longer equipped to participate in it.

This month marks the fifth anniversary of my retirement. I had not intended to stop working. It was forced when, after a year of looking for a job following a layoff, too many 20- and 30-something hiring managers dismissed me with glance at my gray hair, and my personal finances reached the panic point.

Nevertheless, I have believed since then that were there the opportunity, I would slip back into the workplace routine with ease. Now, not so much.

It was hard enough, during my last years on the job, to read or write or edit or even hold a thought surrounded on three sides of my cubicle with colleagues whose work entailed incessant phone calls. I sometimes booked myself into a small conference room just to get anything done in peace. The addition of a Blackberry to my arsenal of equipment would defeat me.

It's not that I couldn't master it - smartphones are not difficult to use. It's the twin demands to be always available for interruption and to tolerate being ignored by others whose messages are more important than the people speaking in person with them. Even at home alone, when I need to concentrate – or just to read or listen to music, sometimes – I close my email program and turn off the phone. I wouldn't last a week in the new, 21st century workplace.

The justifications for the disruption caused by Blackberrys – particularly that it enhances productivity – feel wrong to me, which brings me back to Dr. Fillit who, in his goal to find a prevention or cure for Alzheimer's, has spent his career studying how our brains work.

During his presentation at the Age Boom Academy in which he discussed the workings of human brains at length, he told us that our brains' processing speed peaks at age 20 and the ability to multitask continues to diminish thereafter.

Other studies have repeatedly shown that multitasking – partial attention to several streams of information or activity at once – is not as effective as concentrated attention, leads to errors and prevents in-depth understanding.

So people of all ages - at the highest echelons of government and business or at lower levels where the necessary grunt work is supposed to be done - are fooling themselves to believe that juggling email, texts, meetings and conversation simultaneously leaves them time to reach intelligent decisions. And god knows, at this juncture in our history, we need intelligent decisions more than ever.

It's a good thing I have aged out of the workforce. For better or worse, smartphones have won the culture war and I would surely fail in a Blackberry world.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Lyn Burnstine: Landscapes.

Comments

Don't I know it!? But I am glad that all that is behind me.

In Italy 2 years ago with our daughter,we woke up hearing light clicking. She was under the covers on her Blackberry - at 2 AM!! No wonder they call them crackberries.

Every high school has rules about cell phone use. It has become a battlefield, as teachers are obliged to confiscate phones that ring during class. Imagine a five foot two female teacher facing off with a 6 foot male student. No kid willingly hands over the phone. Also, text messaging during class..cheating on exams..
I retired exactly at the right time. Search You Tube and you will see teachers wrestling cell phones away from students. An article in NY Times was about teens hiding their cell phones in hedges, on apartment ledges, and even asking a candy store owner to keep the phone for $1 a day, before they went into the school building. We're all in this age together, and it isn't fun to sit on a bus with yakkers hollering every intimate detail to the world. Who can work with all that noise?

The only places into which I venture without my trusty earplugs are my car (driving with earplugs is not legal, let alone safe) and the restroom. I highly recommend the approach of controlling ones own environment.

R-U-D-E, in any century, any technology or none.

Many, many moons ago there used to be a cartoon named "Born Too Soon" and I think that applies to me. I don't even own a cell phone, much less a Blackberry.

It irritates the heck out of me when my granddaughters are texting. It's as if they are saying their friends are more important than talking to me. I think it's as rude as whispering to someone in your presence.

Re: the earlier post about cell phones in the classroom - Now educators are being encouraged to embrace the use of cellphones in the classroom. One workshop I attended at a state educational technology conference was all about using a tabulating web page & having students dial in numbers to answer "yes" or "no". Written into state education standards published this spring is the use of social networking to gather information beginning in the second grade!!! THE SECOND GRADE!!! I feel like I've entered some strange parallel universe somewhere along the way.

Retired means my cell phone is off. I take it with me when I drive, but it is still off. Sometimes now, I who used to have the loud music in my convertible, even turn the radio off. Little multi-tasking here at any time. But I am still tasking. :)

.......and PS: where is the newest picture of you at the top?

Mage...

I switched the last photo out and replaced it with the original. The new one was out of focus and that always irritated me, so I went back to this one until I have an up-to-photo I like.

Meanwhile, I noticed last time I was in the city (in this case, London) that call boxes were harder to find and the few that were still functional smelled so badly of piss that I almost choked.
Smartphones, like the Internet, TV, GPS and all the other amazing advances in communications technology, are wonderful inventions. Yet so often they are used in puerile ways. So instead of enriching our culture, they merely help to dumb it down.

My husband uses a cell phone for business which meant I got one as part of the package but where we live is too far out to get coverage; so the only time mine gets used is on trips to a store when he has lost track of where I am (with the hope we both have ours turned on) and when in Tucson where it is my primary phone for long distance. I have no reason to have a blackberry and when he tried to use one he found it not worth the hassle.

What I think often when I see people driving or in stores talking on their phones that there aren't many places they can really just escape. These people stay connected all the time. I wonder if it will lead to more adult attention deficit disorders-- short spurts of info and nothing goes deep.

I can't even blog with the radio on.
As for the blackberry thingy I just find it bloody rude. But then I'm a dinosaur:)

I am also a dinosaur. When the one of my nephews who has a blackberry comes over our conversations are constantly interrupted as he deals with calls or texts from family and work. Following the thread is getting harder and harder with those interruptions. We have cell phones but they are very basic. All we wanted was mobile communication in case something happened away from home. A couple of years ago we joined the rising number of people who gave up land lines because we couldn't see the expense of having both. A couple months ago we blocked the text functions on our cell phones. We don't want to pay when some advertiser sends us a text message, as one did. Just to read it cost $0.20 and it cost $.40 more to cancel the unwanted third-party service that reading the first text signed us up for.

And on the multi-tasking thing--I can't do it efficiently any more, if I was ever efficient at it. Picking up which ever of several threads of however many projects I was working on when I was interrupted is frustrating. And doing that all day long is more than frustrating.

I work alone in an office with walls (no cubicles) so I am spared the annoyances of others’ conversations. However, when people come into the office to use the equipment or to chat, the cell phone, most times, comes alive. I even know who it is calling for some. Different ring sounds for different people.
Recently, I was sitting alongside my daughter in the back seat of the car going to an out of town wedding. On the trip up, we spoke briefly before the blackberry stole the show. On the return trip, I was determined to have some sense of being present. I asked about my rival (the blackberry) and presto…we gabbed all the way home about this amazing “thing.”
I was most eager to have lunch with a friend I hadn’t seen for several months. The first thing she did was put her cell phone on the table. Now she is a doctor, so I realize that maybe an emergency might present itself. The phone rang and she indicated it was only her son and would get back to him later. I said I would not mind if she called him back. We were in no hurry. It was purely a selfish move on my part. I did not want her wondering what he wanted during our time together.
Now I’m not against technology and do carry a cell phone and might one day own what ever comes down the line, but, I believe in basic good manners and that remains unchanged for as long as I’m alive!

The under 25s are a lost cause on the cell phone and texting thing. The only way to cope is to have your own toy to enthuse about and to provide you with entertainment while they are busy with their toy. My Kindle works like a champ on this. "That's OK," I say. "I'll download today's New York Times while you talk to your son."
I am reading a book on how to cope if you are forced to work in the distracting workplaces of today. It's called *I Hate People* by Jonathan Littman and Marc Hershon. It points out that groups are uncreative, mostly, and that distractions kill creativity dead. Their thesis is that other people interfere with work. Many people have such bad personality flaws and have such a negative outlook that they are nothing but trouble to the serious worker. Cooperation is not positive unless people are cooperating with your projects.
I really think this is the new era in the work world that is uncongenial to older people.
And I don't think asking people to be polite will change the trends at work now.
If you can work alone, you are lucky.

Nope -- it's just rude. Paying attention to the people in front of you is always more important than texting, sorry.

I even hate when others answer their cell phones when they are supposed to be with me. Makes me wonder why I've bothered meeting face to face with that person, when I could have just texted or called them. Like my time isn't important.

Rude.

I so relate to this post. If I were forced to re-enter the workforce it would have to be an some entry-level position.

Hattie's comment above is spot-on, too! Good point, why meet face-to-face if you'd receive more attention by texting...

I see that my comment about the previous post was actually in response to Donna's comments, and not Hattie's. Hattie's are great also and the book she recommends sounds excellent.

The constant "communicating" is indeed annoying, not least in my view because all the content automatically gets equal attentional importance. As we all know, this is not really true of real life. Your positive lab results trump (in importance) a sales pitch from a credit card company any day. My hunch is that this stuff caught on the way it did because Gen X and especially Gen Y have little of real importance to pursue since their adult lives are sadly taking place in a flat economy with very limited opportunity. If something real was at stake, the Blackberry would be less interesting.

This is a very thought provoking post, Ronni, and thanks. I was slow to get a cell phone and usually use it when I'm traveling, although if iPhone wasn't tied to AT&T, I'd get one in a heart beat. I do take my laptop many places now, I'll admit, but I find it really rude for people to use their phones/smart phones in public places, much less in meetings. I am still working part-time and I have seen people texting during the meetings.

Obviously, texting has become a menace--train wrecks, auto accidents etc. They are investigating the cell phone usage of the conductor of the DC train accident to see if she was texting.

My own older grandkids are glued to their smart phones, even during family gatherings, and I find it so rude.

Talk about not being in the now.

Thanks for answering the image question, Ronni. :)

Has anyone stopped to wonder why Twitter, Myface, Youtube and similar sites have grown exponentially over the past five years? Obviously, they were created to fill an existing need, the need of the current generation (particularly), and most of those born in the post WWII era,for 'real" connections with other humans via electronic devices for want of any other method.

Mental health practitioners in the first half of the last century were known as "Alienists" and were primarily concerned with helping patients connect to the world around them. So the apparent need has been with us for a very long time and probably has its' roots in the industrial revolution and the ensuing rapid growth of cities.

Since then entrepreneurs in the U.S. and elsewhere have sought to exploit the apparent demand with "quick buck" commercial applications. The end result, however has been to exacerbate the situation. Twittering is no substitute for real,face-to-face contact. Even when I can see your face on "My Face" it still gives me very little information about what you're actually thinking or feeling.

When I was a boy, I would walk miles to avoid using the phone and when someone insisted that I call before visiting, I didn't visit.
Call me a curmudgeon but just like Popeye, "I y'am what I y'am) and offer no apologies

At age 54, I am still in the workforce. I work for a small digital agency (~45 people) that develops and implements Web site redesign projects for higher education and hospitals. Internet and mobile technology is all around me, so you could say I am in the thick of the technology stuff.

I use a cellphone and not a smart phone. I am not at a disadvantage in the workplace. What matters is not the device a person uses but rather the quality and appropriateness of the ideas presented; and whether our designs help our clients achieve their business objectives, on time and under budget.

If somebody in a meeting is focused elsewhere typing on their smartphone and we need them, we/I speak up and ask the person a direct question. That usually solves the in-attention problem.

Everyone where I work has a laptop, which makes it easier to take work home and to work from home. Is this good or bad? Depends upon your perspective and how you USE the technology. While laptops provide working parents with more flexibility to work from home (especially with young children), the devices blur the line between work and home.

Same for smartphones... they blur the line, too. There are benefits to a clear line.

In my opinion, today's youth are easily wowed by the shiny gadgets. Some in their 30's have already developed carpal tunnel from too much clicking and repetitive motion, and they look to us older workers on how we handle or solve this.

In today's workplace, to stay current you have to keep learning new stuff. If you do, you maximize your value and that makes it far easier to move from job to job. Using a smartphone is one piece of a much larger tapestry of skills needed to survive in today's workplace.

George
Editor
http://ivebeenmugged.typepad.com

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