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Give me your undivided attention

As I was wandering the campus on a beautiful Sunday a couple of weeks ago, I saw an unusual number of couples walking hand in hand where one of the pair was simultaneously talking on a cell phone. Strangest of all was a couple who were both talking on their phones. It’s possible that they were talking to each other, but somehow I doubt it. It does seem a shame to waste an idyllic stroll with one’s significant other by talking to someone else on the phone.

It’s not at all uncommon to see parents talking on the phone while pushing a stroller. Presumably being ignored by one’s parents builds a child’s character and independence, but again it seems like a missed opportunity for a bit of togetherness. Maybe it’s just payback when teenagers don’t want to be seen with their parents, a phenomenon you can observe in family groups where a bored and disdainful teen chats on the phone while the elders point out the campus sights. And I suppose it’s some kind of delayed compensation when those same parents helicopter in to monitor their kids after they arrive at Princeton.


But cell phones do seem to encourage us to do too many things at the same time. Last spring I saw a guy riding a bike, steering and holding his dog’s leash with one hand while talking on his phone with the other. The dog seemed quite happy; from the canine perspective, this experience might really be quality time. One wonders, however, what would happen if the dog decided to chase a squirrel, or the bike ran into one of the giant potholes that had opened up over the winter, or a cell-phoning parent and stroller suddenly came out of nowhere.

Professors Sam Wang and Alan Gelperin of the molecular biology department gave a very interesting talk in April about NEU 101: Neuroscience and Everyday Life. One of their topics was experimental results that show unequivocally that multi-tasking is not as efficient as doing tasks sequentially — overall performance suffers when we try to do two things at the same time. In lectures the problem is the distracting effect of texting, tweeting and checking Facebook while the person at the front of the room is trying to explain something. There’s little doubt that people who play with their phones and computers while sporadically tuning in to the lecture do not learn as well as those who focus. Is this clear-cut educational penalty going to cut down on the use of laptops in the classroom? My bet is not, based on discouraging conversations with a fair number of my colleagues and my own unsuccessful attempts at moral suasion.

But perhaps that’s not the important battle. About the same time, another study showed, again unequivocally, that driving while distracted is a major cause of auto accidents; cell-phone use, especially texting, is implicated in perhaps a quarter to a third of all fatalities. This is totally believable; one doesn’t have to drive far on a typical interstate to see someone weaving between lanes or drifting onto the shoulder or slowing down dangerously because they’re looking down at a phone. Of course there are plenty of other driving distractions, like eating, reading, shaving (not me), putting on makeup (ditto), fiddling with the GPS and holding animated conversations with passengers. But texting seems to be the equivalent of being well over the legal limit for alcohol.

A recent article on the growing use of glitzy graphical interfaces in cars suggests that this is going to get worse before it gets better. In ancient cars like mine, the controls are buttons and knobs of various sizes and shapes, which can be manipulated by feel. But the trend in new cars is toward interfaces that require looking at a touch screen to select items from a menu, just like a phone or a computer screen. You can’t operate such interfaces without taking your eyes off the road for significant periods of time. Here’s a bit of quantitative reasoning: At 75 miles per hour, a car travels 110 feet in one second, so if you poke around on a screen for three seconds trying to adjust the radio, you’ve covered the length of a football field without seeing what’s around you.

It’s hard to imagine that people would do something so potentially disastrous, but they do, just as they drink and drive. Another thing that Sam described in his talk is that the brain doesn’t reach its full maturity until one is well into one’s twenties. This means that teenagers, and even some of you, dear readers, do not assess risks as well as you will in a few years. So in the meantime, let me encourage you in the obvious: Don’t drive while distracted by any of these things. You might even put aside your laptop and your phone to spend a bit of quality time with the people right around you.

Brian Kernighan GS ’69 is a computer science professor and a Forbes faculty adviser. He can be reached at