Editor’s note: Barry Beith, president of HumanCentric Technologies, is the newest addition to Local Tech Wire’s growing number of regular Opinion contributors. ‘The Human Side’ will appear on Thursdays.Technology provides us with remarkable tools for organizing and driving our lives. We, however, are responsible for how we employ that technology to reap the positive benefits without adding to the baggage that life already loads on us.

Take wireless telecom technology for instance.

There is no doubt that the freedom provided us when the telephone cord was cut has improved our lives and pushed back the boundaries of communication. The quality of life has been improved and the human traits of adaptability and versatility have been doubled and redoubled by our ability to converse with anyone, anywhere, anytime.

Then there is that old human trait of overdoing everything and employing technology under the umbrella philosophy that if a little of something is good, a lot must be better, and an infinite amount must be the best. And so we find ourselves bombarded with phone calls, voice messages, pages, beepers, and a myriad of communications from friends, family, colleagues, co-workers, and strangers.

A sign of success is how many voicemails you trudge through daily – a measure, I might add, as effective a sign of productivity as the one showing how many meetings a day in which you participated.

We thrive on being accessible and having others accessible to us, without really appreciating the other consequences of this double-edged technology. Having accepted the positive capabilities that the technology affords us, we need to realize these other consequences playing on human limitations.

Adding to the social din

Clearly cellular phones have contributed greatly to our tools and capabilities. If nothing else Flight 93 on 9/11 proved that fact. That having been said, we have all experienced the social aggravation of the intrusion that cells phones ringing and people talking incessantly can have on our peace and concentration.

Even when it is not our intent to eavesdrop on a conversation, humans are not wired to ignore human speech. We can’t ignore it the way we can relegate music or other noises to the background. The well-established “cocktail party” effect of being able to pick out one conversation and listen to it in a room full of talking people is a human capability of value. Our inability to shut out human speech completely and not allow it to intrude is a human limitation and cell phones have raised to human din to whole new levels wherever people can find a tower. This leads to aggravation and frustrations levels never dealt with before and it’s getting worse.

The debate over cell phone use in cars can actually be expanded to include any situation in which people need to be aware of the situation around them. This capability of human is referred to and researched under the rubric of “situational awareness” (SA) and is studied for pilots, auto drivers, police, soldiers and other groups for whom knowing what’s going on around them is critical.

Canadian research reported in the late 1990’s associated cell phone use in cars with accidents at the same rate as mild alcohol use. The issue for most was related to the notion of “hands on the wheel, eyes on the road.” The real issue is one of allocation of attention. This means that you can have your hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road, but your mind is processing information from the phone call not the traffic around you. Until this very difficult issue is addressed either through technology or through training, cell phone use in cars will always have the potential for trouble at some point under some conditions.

Does it seem you have less time?

Accessibility 24/7 brings with it high stress, intrusions, frustrations, and a perceptible loss of time. Yep, that what I said: a perceptible loss of time.

You see if you are one of these folks we all know who are compelled to respond to the ringing phone, you allow intrusions and interruptions to run your life and the lives of those around you. You can imagine the consequences if you remember back to the last time a counter person in some business decided to ignore you at the counter trying to check out in order to answer the phone and give the person not in the store priority. Now everyone does that to each other.

The result is that everyone allows intrusions in their activities that are most often unrelated and they in return intrude on other people with things that are often unrelated. Yeh, yeh, you say but how does this relate to time?

Research has shown that our perception of time is influenced by many things including workload, physical stress, mental activity, memories, etc. One of the factors influencing our perception of the passage of time is the memory for activities occurring within some block of time. Intrusions or interruptions not only do not generally form memories, but can indeed obscure memories of on-going activities by “interrupting” them. When these memories are removed the time is remembered as “shorter.”

Now add that perception to the fact that these interruptions often do reduce the amount of activities accomplished because of their effect on our concentration, our task flow, and our ability to coordinate time-shared tasks and you also actually accomplish less during a block of time because of the intrusions caused by being so accessible.

How many of us have felt that we have less time today, that time is passing more quickly, that the pace of life is faster, more hectic. Well, congratulations, you’re right, and a big role is played by the technology we use.

Sometimes being incommunicado is a good thing

People often equate alone with lonely, so being “connected” has a compelling feel to it, similar to having a fire to cut through the darkness of night. Being alone and being lonely are very different since one is a state or condition and the other is an emotion.

Human beings need to learn when to turn technology off and enjoy the benefits of being “out of touch.” I always incur the wrath of my wife when, on long driving trips, I turn off my phone in order to use the time constructively in thought. Ok, sometimes constructively, other times, I just sing little diddies in my head (you can’t imagine the half-life of “It’s a Small, Small World.”)

We need to understand that most often peace, tranquility, focus, concentration, and, most importantly, inspiration can come from being alone. Creativity and imagination, as we adults can learn from children, are very often the product of boredom. Unfortunately, in today’s world, our technology has provided the means to stave off boredom indefinitely and under almost any conditions.

Cell phones and infotainment technologies conspire to allow the world to intrude and we rise to let it in.

Feedback and other contributions are welcome. Send comments to LTW Managing Editor Rick Smith (rsmith8@nc.rr.com).

Humancentric: www.humancentrictech.com