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.