Are Cellphones Making Us Dumb?

Last Updated Oct 27, 2009 1:02 PM EDT

Updated 1:15pm PST: Just heard that the Northwest Airlines pilots who overshot the runway in Minneapolis last week were reportedly on their laptops and failed to notice all the control tower and control panel alarms and messages. I rest my case.

Last week, university researchers announced the results of a study on awareness: Just 8 percent of pedestrians talking on cellphones noticed a clown on a unicycle pedaling across a campus square, versus 60 percent of pedestrians talking with a friend.

The results are fascinating, but I think gadget and media-bombardment presents cognitive issues that go well beyond "distraction."

A recent Stanford research study suggests that media multitasking or "high-tech juggling" between web browsing, emailing, and texting, for example, impairs cognitive control and is counterproductive.
No kidding. All my cognitive, deductive, and inspirational "leaps" come when I'm relaxed, focused, undistracted. So, is it hyperbole to say that our addiction to cellphones and other gadgets is making us dumber? I don't think so.

Just after Apple launched the iPhone in 2007, this was posted on CNET

Why the iPhone Scares the Crap Out of Me
The other day I was talking on my cell phone and tried to walk into Trader Joe's through the exit door. I looked up to find a row of registers blocking my way and a guy with a name tag looking at me funny.

"Hey man, why don't you get that thing out of your ear?" he said, not entirely without humor.

He had a point.

It's ironic. I make fun of people who drive around with these things glued to their ears. I imagine they can't stand a minute alone with themselves and their thoughts. Hungry for distraction, desperate for human contact, they talk, talk, talk. ...

The iPhone may not be the first, but it will without a doubt be the most popular phone with a decent visual interface and some really cool features for Web browsing and whatever else you choose to strain your eyeballs on.

I don't know about you, but that scares the crap out of me. What's next, head-up display contact lenses? Nice product strategy, huh? Has anybody trademarked iLense yet?

On the other hand, if Jobs made it, Mossberg liked it, and all of you are waiting in line to shell out $599 to buy it, who am I to say, "Look out for the embankment!"

That was my first ever blog post. But besides nostalgic amusement, my point is this: My all-too-rare intelligent thoughts and insights -- including those in my blogs -- come when I'm focused, undistracted. Gadgets and their distractions make me dumber and hinder my productivity. Research seems to indicate that I'm not alone.

So what effect does all this have in the workplace, on American business? Should we be concerned? If so, what should managers and business leaders do about it?