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How New Technology is Rewiring our Brains

Aug 02, 20109 mins
Build AutomationInput DevicesVideoconferencing

You think your car radio is broken because it doesn't display the name of the song and the artist. You tap a word on a paperback and wonder why the definition doesn't automatically pop up. You swipe a digit across the screen of your cell phone and all you get are fingerprint smudges.

You think your car radio is broken because it doesn’t display the name of the song and the artist. You tap a word on a paperback and wonder why the definition doesn’t automatically pop up. You swipe a digit across the screen of your cell phone and all you get are fingerprint smudges.

Then you remember: That isn’t a satellite radio. You’re reading an actual book, not a Kindle. It’s not a smart phone, it’s a dumb one. You were expecting the cool capabilities of new technology–from old technology.

“It used to be we wanted to keep up with the Joneses,” says Christine Louise Hohlbaum, author of The Power of Slow: 101 Ways to Save Time in Our 24/7 World. “Today all we want is to keep up with our gadgets. Technology pervades every aspect of our lives. Our touchscreen existence has literally rewired our brains. Our behavior is also informed by the technology we use. We tap, ping, and Skype [download], all day long.”

So sometimes we get a little flummoxed when confronted by something that isn’t digital–like a door that actually requires a key, or a book whose pages don’t turn by themselves, or a TV that plays shows in real time with no skipping past the commercials.

Is this a common problem, or are we just spoiled geeks? We asked around. Turns out we’re not the only ones who regularly have out-of-technology experiences. Here are some typical ones.

A Lifetime Subscription to TiVo

In researching this article, we found that by far the greatest response was from people who’ve grown so accustomed to TiVo and other digital video recorders that they want to use them everywhere–not just on TVs, but on movies, car radios, and even conversations.

“Since I can so easily rewind television shows using my TiVo, I am constantly trying to rewind my radio to hear something I’ve missed,” says Kim Dushinski, author of The Mobile Marketing Handbook. “But I knew I was totally spoiled by technology when I started to want to rewind actual conversations with people. (‘I know she told me her name two seconds ago, but I forgot it already. I’ll just rewind…oh wait…crud.’)”

We can think of other applications. You’re taking an awfully long time to get to the point, so I’ll just fast-forward through the boring preamble. Gee, that was amazingly cute thing my four-year-old just did. Let me replay that.

“I was driving down the highway, and I saw a billboard that I thought was hilarious,” says Joe Paone, president of PR firm Bee Elevated Communications. “But my wife missed it. My immediate instinct was to press rewind so my wife could see it.”

Regrettably, unless you live inside a cheesy Adam Sandler movie (which would be cause for regret of another magnitude), life does not come with an embedded DVR. For better or worse, we’re all stuck with real time.

Just Like an eBook, Only With No Batteries

Remember when publishers used to print books on paper? Actually, they still do. At least for now, anyway. But sometimes it’s easy to forget.

“I was reading a book last night, and I wondered whether something I’d just read had been mentioned earlier in the book,” says Dianne Smith, a sales professional in Manchester, Massachusetts. “I wanted to do a search back through the preceding chapters to find the reference. Then I realized I was reading print and would have to flip back page by page. I laughed at myself. But I do love the good old-fashioned pleasure of page turning.”

Sharing electronic text can be a simple matter of pressing a few keys, says Matthew Kammerait, marketing and social media specialist for Quad/Graphics, a $5 billion book and magazine printer in Sussex, Wisconsin. Sharing a physical book? You might have to exchange actual molecules.

“Working on my iPad, iPhone, laptop, etc., I’ve become very used to sharing just about everything I find interesting with others to foster dialogue,” says Kammerait. “When I’m reading a printed book, I find myself looking for Share widgets on the page.”

That’s okay, Matt. We won’t tell your bosses.

You Can’t Touch This

Once you’ve gotten used to a smartphone that has a multitouch interface, it’s hard to pass a normal screen without at least trying to tap, swipe, or pinch it. Good luck with that.

“I’m so used to my phone being touchscreen that every time somebody hands me a BlackBerry or something, I expect that to be a touchscreen,” says Dan Nainan, a comedian/actor and self-described computer genius. “I’ve also actually started to touch my laptop screen, even though it is not a touchscreen.”

Maybe Nainan ought to rethink the genius part. Still, he’s hardly alone. Gleb Budman says that he, too, finds himself assuming that all screens are touchscreens.

“I walked into a Borders bookstore a few weeks ago, needed to find a specific book, and couldn’t quickly find a person to help me,” recalls Budman, CEO of Backblaze, an online backup service. “I saw a big screen at the information desk showing various books and tried tapping it to search. Tap. Tap tap. Tap tap tap. Oh, it’s a ‘dumb screen.’ Back to searching for a person.”

Even if it a display is a touchscreen, it may not respond to your touch in exactly the way that your own touchscreen device does.

“As owner of an HTC Evo and an iPad, I constantly attempt Android gestures on the iPad, and vice versa,” says Jeff Sass, chief evangelist for mobile entertainment provider Myxer. “I’m always frustrated when they don’t produce the same results. “We are spoiled by the gestures we learn, which is frustrating when we move from device to device.”

Where’s the Undo Button When You Really Need It?

You’ve reached the punchline of a tasteless joke just as the conversation in the room hits an unexpected lull. That priceless antique vase from your wife’s late aunt is now a jumble of shards on the floor, thanks to your oafishness. You’ve slaved and sacrificed your entire life to raise your kids, and now they can’t even be bothered to return your calls.

One of life’s great tragedies is that it lacks an Undo button. But that doesn’t stop people from trying. Josh Kelly, a principal of Fine Design Group (who possibly spends a little too much time inside Adobe Photoshop), can relate.

“All of us who work a lot on computers have become very accustomed to the shortcut that allows us to ‘undo’ our last action,” he says. “I’ve literally had situations on the phone where I’ve said something, or I’ve made a wrong turn while driving, and I’ve thought ‘I’ll just undo that with a keystroke.’ I’ve also decided to do things thinking that I’ll just undo them if they don’t work out. All of these things can be undone, but sometimes with considerably more effort than pressing Command-X.”

Suffering From Prius Envy

Driving used to be simple: Put your key in the lock, open the door; put your key in the ignition, start the car. Now there’s a remote control for everything–well, almost everything.

Harry E. Keller, Ph.D, owns a 2004 Toyota Prius, which he starts by pressing a button on the key fob. But when Keller, president of Paracomp, an Internet-based instructional software company, rents cars while traveling, he often finds himself sitting in the driver’s seat, fumbling with the keys in his pocket and wondering why the car won’t start.

It’s not just cars. In today’s push-button world, we tend to expect all doors to operate electronically. Keys? Aren’t those something your parents used to carry?

“I have inadvertently waved my RFID dongle or clicked my car remote at my apartment door (which uses a traditional key) only to find that it isn’t open when I crash into it,” notes Martha Ciske, a social media executive in Orlando, Florida. “A few squashed groceries can be replaced, but I have to admit my pride gets a little squashed too.”

Don’t worry Martha, you’re in good company.

“At least a couple times a year, I try to lock the door of my home with my car remote or, even more embarrassingly, with the television remote,” admits Crystal Washington, a marketing strategist based in Houston.

Ruined by the InterWebs

The Internet has given us “information at our fingertips.” So now that’s where we want it, all the time. And when we can’t have it, well, some of us get a little cranky.

“I can no longer watch TV,” laments Richard Laermer, CEO of RLM public relations and co-author of Punk Marketing. “When Drop Dead Diva comes on, I’ll think, ‘I know I’ve seen Brooke Elliott somewhere; what else was she in?’ and look for something to click that will tell me. Only there’s nothing to click. The TV just sits there, doing nothing. I’ll start yelling terrible things at the TV that my mother would wash out my mouth with soap for saying. I’ll download things and watch them on my computer, but I haven’t turned on my television in three months.”

Cameron Crotty, a high tech marketer in San Francisco, says he’s spoiled by the inability to augment his reality with information wherever he is.

“A few years ago while on a cross-country drive, I became briefly, irrationally, and hilariously irritated that I couldn’t just point at a town on the horizon (or touch the inside of my windshield) and have a little balloon pop up above it telling me what it was called and what services it had,” says Crotty.

Note to self: Avoid going on cross-country trips with Crotty. At least, don’t let him behind the wheel.

Finally, the Net has made us even more demanding consumers who want everything customized to our particular tastes, says Danny Wong, a writer and cofounder of Blank Label, a custom shirt maker (naturally).

“As the co-founder of a start-up where I can design my own dress shirt online and have it shipped to me, I want everything to be personalized–from my Pandora channels to my iTunes playlists, to customized chocolates and customized granola, even having my own underwear shipped to me in a quarterly subscription,” he writes.

Thanks, Danny. But that bit about the custom underwear? Too much information. There are some things we prefer to keep analog, if you know what we mean.

Neary all of Contributing Editor Dan Tynan’s devices are smarter than he is. Catch his brand of sophomoric snark on eSarcasm (Geek Humor Gone Wild) and follow him on Twitter: @tynan_on_tech.

Dan Tynan has been writing about technology since Mark Zuckerberg was in nappies. A prolific freelance writer whose work has appeared in more than 70 publications, he is the former editor in chief of Yahoo Tech and a longtime contributing editor for InfoWorld and PCWorld.

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