Tue | Jul 17, 2018

Garth Rattray | Smarter phones, dumber people

Published:Monday | March 27, 2017 | 12:00 AM

There was a time when I carried around over 20 phone numbers in my head. Now, since the advent of the smartphone, I'm lucky if I can recall my own cell number. God forbid that I'm without the use of my cell phone and someone lends me theirs, I could perhaps recall my wife's cell number and my office landline number, but that's all.

It is said that the average smartphone is millions of times more powerful than all the computers used by NASA during the 1960s for the moon missions. From GPS navigation to mapping the stars; from calculating expenses to full Windows Office functions; from monitoring your health to recording and reporting minuscule seismic activities; from voice and video calls to capturing people and events and storing them; from reminding you about appointments to suggesting best dates for fertility ... there's a smartphone app for almost everything.

The other day, one of my teenage patients complained about irregular periods. Her aunt accompanied her and initiated the history by asking her niece when last she saw her period. Stumped, the niece sat open-mouthed and staring up at the ceiling in a vain quest to recall the elusive, but vital information. Her aunt suggested that she use a calendar to note the dates and the niece's countenance changed from a quizzical yearning to a scornful sneer. "A calendar!?" she scoffed. "A calendar!". She went on. "I store all my dates on an app in my phone." Naturally, her aunt asked, where is the phone with the dates?" The niece replied, "That phone get messed up." So much for high tech. If she had used a low-tech pencil and calendar, we would be able to figure out her cycle or lack thereof.




The dependency and obsession with smartphones is sometimes very dangerous. Communicating on one of those devices draws you into a virtual world and separates you from the reality of the moment. Nascent danger is missed and loss of life can follow. One of the most striking examples of this was seen one day at a traffic light in busy Half-Way Tree. A young-looking woman was standing at the curb, waiting for the traffic to abate. She had a little girl of about four years old hanging on to her left hand while she chatted fervently with her cell phone in her right hand.

She appeared lost in the conversation. She stared straight ahead as if immersed in a deep discussion. She stepped off the curb and began slowly walking through the long intersection. I had the red light, but the traffic going south did not and, as usual, the cars were being driven as if there was a menacing tidal wave in pursuit. The little four-year-old saw the rapidly approaching vehicles and actively began running as she pulled her adult company out of danger. Even when she reached the other curb safely (thanks to the little girl), the adult continued talking, yanked her left hand from the little girl's grip and used it to gesticulate as if in the process of making a point over the cell phone.

I have seen a full-size SUV being driven by someone dressed as if he ought to know much better, accelerate with verve through an intersection with his head buried in his cell phone and his right thumb rapidly typing away. It's fairly common to see people looking down while moving ahead in a line of traffic, they depend solely on their peripheral vision. Most people believe that they can multitask, but research has shown that we can only switch back and forth between various tasks. We can't do any two things at the same time. Driving and texting is ridiculously dangerous, and driving and talking is as bad as driving drunk. Distracted driving is the number one cause of teenage traffic fatalities in the United States of America.

Innumerable people exist, lost in (cyber) space. Besides the physical dangers of driving, riding and even walking while engaged in cell phone activities, smartphones dumb us down. We become so dependent on them that our brains forget how to memorise important facts and dates and we transition from a master-servant relationship with our smartphones to a symbiotic relationship and, now, arguably into a servant-master relationship where we become the slaves of technology.

- Garth A. Rattray is a medical doctor with a family practice. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and garthrattray@gmail.com