Multitasking and Distraction June 2017
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The problem of high-tech distraction is not new, and most people are well aware of the dangers of now-common practices such as texting while driving. Nevertheless, the problem appears to be worsening. As people spend more and more time with their devices, they become habituated to multitasking, which increases the likelihood that they will make distraction-related errors. Efforts to protect device users from their own mistakes, however, may be counterproductive, encouraging complacency among device users.
The regularity with which people interact with smartphones and use them to send text messages, post tweets, and perform a variety of other tasks increasingly habituates people to multitasking. The mass adoption of mobile devices increases the number of opportunities for distraction-related errors exponentially. Constant access to mobile devices renders frequent device use routine, and the habitual nature of smartphone use makes recognizing potential dangers of smartphone use more difficult. Perfectly safe interaction with a smartphone for hours at a time dulls a user's awareness of the dangers of, for instance, texting while crossing a street or driving. In fact, the US National Safety Council (Itasca, Illinois) recently announced that vehicle-related deaths increased in 2015 and 2016, despite the growing number of safety features such as collision-detection and lane-departure-warning systems in modern cars. What explains the fact that the United States just saw the largest two-year increase in vehicle-related deaths since 1962–63? Researchers argue that distracted driving—though not the only factor—is probably an important factor, given that more people are sending texts and making calls while they are on the road.
The habitual nature of smartphone use makes recognizing potential dangers of smartphone use more difficult.
Smartphones can distract during even very simple but mission-critical tasks, as a gaffe at the 2017 Academy Awards (Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; Beverly Hills, California) demonstrated in spectacular and embarrassing fashion. At the ceremony, PricewaterhouseCoopers International (London, England) partner Brian Cullinan was distracted by tweeting and taking pictures of celebrities and gave out the wrong envelope for the Best Picture award. As a result, presenters Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty mistakenly announced that La La Land, not Moonlight, had won the award.
That vehicle-related deaths are up despite the proliferation of technologies that should protect both drivers and pedestrians suggests that drivers are placing too much trust in such technologies, assuming that various in-vehicle safety systems will allow them to talk and text behind the wheel without incident. This scenario illustrates how efforts to address distraction problems can encourage people to become complacent about the dangers of multitasking and distraction. Today's distracted drivers join a long history of users' defeating safety technologies and making activities less safe, as author and speaker Edward Tenner documented in his 1997 book, Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences. Dr. Tenner noted that accident rates were the same for taxi drivers in a vehicle with an antilock-braking system (ABS) and taxi drivers in a vehicle without an ABS, because drivers with an ABS tended to drive more aggressively, stop harder, and generally aim to "consume" the additional safety an ABS provides in an effort to drive faster and pick up more fares. Because of new safety systems, drivers could be safer than ever if they would stay off their phones; instead, modern drivers are using their phones behind the wheel and consuming more safety than the new systems produce, thereby increasing the likelihood that they will be involved in fatal accidents. Other technological advances could also have problematic effects. Bloomberg News (Bloomberg; New York, New York) recently reported that Ford Motor Company (Dearborn, Michigan) engineers who are working on self-driving cars were having trouble staying awake during road tests because of boredom and the resulting drowsiness.
Automobile drivers are not the only people who have consumed safety margins or fallen prey to technology-driven complacency. Football players, for example, are not safer for using improved pads and helmets. Since the introduction of the improved gear, players have tended to hit one another harder, and coaches have taught players to use tackles that are more likely to result in injury. Rugby players, in contrast, wear no pads at all, yet they have lower rates of injury than football players have: Rugby players use a style of tackling that is different from the style of tackling football players use, and they are likely to injure themselves if they use unsafe techniques. Moreover, automobile drivers are not alone in facing challenges because of smartphones and other distracting technologies. In 2015, the US National Transportation Safety Board (Washington, DC) issued a warning to pilots, instructing them not to take selfies or photographs during takeoff and landing. The agency issued the warning after a crash investigation concluded that a pilot had become disoriented and crashed his plane after his phone's flash went off while he was taking a selfie.
These examples suggest that society will need technologies that do a better job of taking over for humans entirely or staying out of the way when humans are focusing on other tasks. Perhaps society even needs devices smart enough to turn themselves off when users engage in tasks that require their full attention. So far, efforts to combat smartphone-driven distraction have been less than successful, and neither the ability to design nondistracting technologies nor the ability of individual users to exercise self-discipline seems able to keep up with the increasingly ubiquitous onslaught of distractions. For example, the town of Bodegraven in the Netherlands installed LED strips in sidewalks to alert smartphone-focused pedestrians when the traffic lights change (to ensure that people looking down at their mobile devices would notice)—only to face criticism for enabling antisocial behavior. Other new alert systems that aim to prevent distracted pedestrians from walking into traffic have appeared in Germany and Australia.
The increasing adoption of voice-controlled intelligent personal assistants such as Alexa (Amazon.com; Seattle Washington), Cortana (Microsoft; Redmond, Washington), and Siri (Apple; Cupertino, California) could either make the distraction problem worse or provide ways to reduce distractions among users. The Alexa-enabled Amazon Echo smart speaker and similar devices enable users to control a variety of services and connected devices via voice commands, and voice-analytics company VoiceLabs (San Francisco, California) recently forecast that the number of sales of such devices would increase fourfold in 2017. Perhaps the increasing use of such voice-controlled technologies will eliminate some visual distractions. Developers may be able to design intelligent personal assistants and devices that run them to sense when their users are driving or walking and turn off certain apps in the interest of safety; however, developers may intentionally or accidentally design such technologies in ways that actually increase user distraction.