The Tom-Tom: Michael Larner

Michael Larner, a graduate of USC with degrees in Psychology and Chinese, has been a contributing editor of PC Quarterly Review for the past five years. He is a member of the first generation to grow up fully immersed in interactive media. In addition to recently being named managing editor of the new Automotive section of PC Quarterly Review, Michael’s duties require him to cover advances within the consumer electronics industry and to assess how they will affect our lives.” He can be reached at:

The Destructive Effects of Digital Distraction

With the ever-quickening rate of technological progress, we rarely pause to reflect upon the negative consequences that such advances have had on society. By the late 1990’s, more than 10 million families in America had signed up for unlimited Internet usage. Since then, instant messaging services have become an integral part of the desktop landscape of an ever-increasing number of Generation Y’ers. As the years have passed, that landscape has grown to include a number of instant messaging applications, social networking windows, RSS feeds, streaming media content, and a whole host of other digital content. Tom-Tom: Michael Larner

Michael Larner, Managing Editor, Automotive Section, PC Quarterly Review

Generation Y has become the first generation to integrate multiple streams of on-demand content into their daily lives, while the younger Generation Z will never experience anything but a fully integrated world. And with this consolidation of information, I fear that we’re witnessing a decline of the essential critical thinking and communication skills that have provided the foundation for society’s progress, including the technological revolution.

Given that these streams of information are designed to be digested simultaneously, they have been watered down to make for easier reading. Twitter limits its posts to 140 characters. Status updates on Facebook can only be three times longer. Communicating via instant messaging and texting has become such a prevalent issue that we’ve passed laws dictating when it’s acceptable. Add in the overwhelming number of one-paragraph blog posts that share a single interesting tidbit of content and it’s easy to see how this information can be absorbed so quickly. But an entire generation has been trained to instantly identify and use information in the most efficient manner possible. So when they come across a full-length article, it’s only natural that these same youngsters will revert to skimming the story. This wouldn’t be so bad if it were the extent of the problem, except that it’s not. All of these bite-sized pieces of information take little to no brainpower to extract meaning from and to understand. So, in a use-it-or-lose-it fashion, an entire generation is slowly forgetting how to process information. And, with their skimming method, they’re probably missing some important details as well.

Last week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, in addition to the normal slew of after-hours parties, meetings, and networking events, folks gathered for the “Official CES Tweetup” in which Twitter users met in the lobby of the Hilton in order to network. As I walked by the group, I saw a gathering of about 50 young adults standing around in a bunch typing furiously on their phones. A check on Twitter following the event revealed that many of the tweets that had been posted during the event included people announcing that they were at the Tweetup. Why didn’t they just look up and see that other people were there? Because talking to one other person is inefficient. It’s boring. It’s not what this generation has been conditioned to do. This generation has been trained to maintain multiple conversations at once via online chats, while checking their email, and skimming the headlines.

Now consider the technology creeping into our cars, and the rate at which it is doing so. Mercedes has introduced its new split-view entertainment system, in which the driver and passenger can watch different images on the same screen without seeing the other’s view. Factor in the screens for the backseats, and the future of communication on those family road trips looks bleak. Active accident avoidance technologies are starting to trickle down from the premium manufacturers to the more affordable brands as well. And Ford just announced that they will be releasing a voice control API for developers of smartphone applications so that drivers can control their apps through Sync’s voice commands. Motorola also introduced two new GPS navigation systems that will pair with almost all Bluetooth devices and will display incoming text messages onscreen (Sync will also read them aloud). Plus, new applications from Nuance mean that we can now dictate our emails and text messages.

Imagine the following worst-scenario scenario: the road will be filled with an increasing number of drivers who understand how to best leverage this technology to their advantage. While driving along, they will soon be able to stream their music from Pandora, update their Facebook status, listen to incoming text messages, and place an order at Chipotle, all while they are driving to the restaurant. But they won’t be worried about crashing because adaptive cruise control will be adjusting their speed, blind spot indicator systems will alert them to cars next to them, driver monitoring systems will warn them if they are tired, and crosswind stabilization systems will adjust for high winds, while the passenger comfortably watches TV from the right-hand seat. And I admit, maybe this seems like a hugely efficient model that we can be proud of from a technological standpoint. But, given the current generation’s propensity for multitasking without truly focusing on any single undertaking, I fear that all of these technological innovations meant to be used as tools to help the driver in his or her quest for safety, will actually become necessary crutches for the driver. Future drivers, especially those growing up in the digital age, will be too busy keeping up with the stream of information now available to them from the driver’s seat to actually focus on the task at hand: driving safely.

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