Commentary: Take A Vacation From Your BlackBerry

Gadgets may or may not boost productivity, but they sure boost errors and stress

Marty Kotis is one of them -- the people of the handhelds. The CEO of Greensboro real estate development company Kotis Properties carries not one but two cell phones: a Bluetooth-enabled Motorola V710 and a Treo 600 (soon to be upgraded to a 650). That's so he can talk on one while simultaneously checking and sending e-mail on the other. His green BMW 740 is equipped with two LCD screens mounted above the front and back seats so he can hold mobile videoconferences. On the bimmer's backseat bulges his 50-lb. go-bag complete with a laptop, five external drives, an iSight camera, a digital camera, a digital video recorder, and a Bluetooth printer. At stoplights he downloads everything from aerial photographs of new site locations to songs like Over and Over by Tim McGraw and Nelly, which he plays wirelessly on his stereo through his iPod. "Sometimes people honk," Kotis says.

In Tokyo they call them the oyayubi sadai -- the Thumb Generation. Here in the U.S., the multitasking mobs don't yet have an official moniker. Instead they are known by their crackBerry thumb splints and their Treo trances, their faces glued to screens as the sounds of Ice, Ice Baby ringtones fill the air. Text messages are creating a new office shorthand: "Tx. Hi yu si on confcall 330$." (Translation: "Thanks. Why don't you sit in on the conference call at 3:30?") In Congress, BlackBerries -- the ultimate in post-boom cachet -- have turned a slew of starched staffers into keyboard Cassanovas, "blirting" (flirting) across hearing rooms. CNBC anchor Alan Murray even confessed to viewers that he uses his handheld in church.

There's no doubt that the multitudes of gadgets, many of which claim most-lusted-after status on Christmas wish lists, have enabled us to be productive in ways we never dreamed. They also make us not so productive, like the time Omar Wasow, executive director of BlackPlanet.com, got an urgent text message during a high-level meeting that read: "Nicole Kidman with yoga mat in Union Square. Right now." The question, then, remains: Are these devices really delivering on their promise to heighten productivity? Can gadgets enable one employee to do the work of two?

To those in academia who study our use of them, the answer is far from a resounding yes. The idea that gadgets always make us more efficient "is a scam, an illusion," says David Greenfield, director of the Hartford-based Center for Internet Studies. That's because at their heart, gadgets enable multitasking. And a growing body of evidence suggests that multitasking can easily turn into multislacking. It also increases errors, short-circuits attention spans, induces air-traffic-controller-like stress, and elongates the time it takes to accomplish the most basic tasks by up to 50% or more, according to University of Michigan psychology professor David Meyer. At the same time, scrolling through e-mail during business lunches and punching out text messages during meetings can kick in our dopamine-reward system, says Meyer, unleashing a pleasure-inducing hit that for an estimated 6% of Internet users has become clinically addictive.

Gadgets also trigger cognitive overload, says Harvard Medical School psychiatry instructor Dr. Edward M. Hallowell, contributing to a new epidemic he calls ADT: attention deficit trait. All that toggling back and forth "dilutes performance and increases irritability," says Hallowell, causing steady managers to become disorganized underachievers. "I'm not pro or con technology, but this is a challenge we've never faced before."

As gadgets enable everyone to generate more and more work, raising the volume of material people have to process, the flywheel moves faster and faster. "At some point it becomes an insupportable loop," says Hamilton College anthropologist Douglas Raybeck. We aren't built for "continually processing a great mountain of information." Thus signs of sanity are emerging: the Quiet Car on Amtrak. The buzzing "manner" mode on phones. Teenagers throwing cell-phone-free, no-text-messaging-allowed parties. As with all things technological, perhaps it's time for the executive class to take yet another cue from them.

By Michelle Conlin

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