Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Call of the beguiled

Posted by metaphorical on 27 March 2007

I had always known that overhearing a cellphone call, say on an train, is more distracting than hearing two people talk, and it made sense. What I didn’t know until today was that there was some science to back it up—a 2004 paper makes the case that cellphones are at least as annoying to bystanders as very loud talking and perhaps more so.


Sixty four members of the public were exposed to the same staged conversation either while waiting in a bus station or travelling on a train. Half of the conversations were by mobile phone, so that only one end of the conversation was heard, and half were co present face-to-face conversations. The volume of the conversations was controlled at one of two levels: the actors’ usual speech level and exaggeratedly loud. Following exposure to the conversation participants were approached and asked to give verbal ratings on six scales. Analysis of variance showed that mobile phone conversations were significantly more noticeable and annoying than face-to-face conversations at the same volume when the content of the conversation is controlled. Indeed this effect of medium was as large as the effect of loudness. Various explanations of this effect are explored, with their practical implications.

The article, “Why are mobile phones annoying?”, is here. You have to buy it, but Jakob Nielsen, usability expert, blogged about it, showing some of the data and saying this about it:

Unfortunately, Monk and his colleagues don’t provide the final answer; more research is called for. But the problem seems to be that people pay more attention when they hear only half a conversation. It’s apparently easier to tune out the continuous drone of a complete conversation, in which two people take turns speaking, than it is to ignore a person speaking and falling silent in turns.

My guess is, that’s just because we’re less used to it. As we become accustomed to the still-novel rhythm of the cellphone call, it will be less distracting.

Meanwhile, we’re learning more and more about cellphones and how they affect ourselves as well as others. The NY Times had a good article Sunday on multitasking in general, which of course has some consequences for things like cellphone reaction times.

The more we know, the better. Speaking for myself, I use my phone quite a bit either when driving long distances on highways, or short trips I know by rote. I know, again, speaking for myself, that I’m not as safe a driver when I’m engaged in a phone conversation. The question is, how much less safe?

I’m going to quote a little bit more of the article than I need to, because I just like Steve Lohr’s writing here:

March 25, 2007
“Slow Down, Brave Multitasker, and Don’t Read This in Traffic,”

Confident multitaskers of the world, could I have your attention?

Think you can juggle phone calls, e-mail, instant messages and computer work to get more done in a time-starved world? Read on, preferably shutting out the cacophony of digital devices for a while.

Several research reports, both recently published and not yet published, provide evidence of the limits of multitasking. The findings, according to neuroscientists, psychologists and management professors, suggest that many people would be wise to curb their multitasking behavior when working in an office, studying or driving a car.

The human brain, with its hundred billion neurons and hundreds of trillions of synaptic connections, is a cognitive powerhouse in many ways. “But a core limitation is an inability to concentrate on two things at once,” said René Marois, a neuroscientist and director of the Human Information Processing Laboratory at Vanderbilt University.

They did MRI studies “to pinpoint the bottleneck in the brain and to measure how much efficiency is lost when trying to handle two tasks at once.”

The researchers said that they did not see a delay if the participants were given the tasks one at a time. But the researchers found that response to the second task was delayed by up to a second when the study participants were given the two tasks at about the same time.

Here’s the consequence for using a cellphone while driving:

In many daily tasks, of course, a lost second is unimportant. But one implication of the Vanderbilt research, Mr. Marois said, is that talking on a cellphone while driving a car is dangerous. A one-second delay in response time at 60 miles an hour could be fatal, he noted.

Again, just a guess on my part, but some of that may change as we become more accustomed to talking in public. In particular, there’s a way in which the conversation is drawn into the phone call that isn’t so much a consequence of phone calls as an artifact of how we’re used to conducting them.

I noticed when my step-daughter was growing up and starting to use the phone that her manner was completely different from mine. When I would come into the room while she was on the phone, instead of telling the person to hold on, then, cupping the phone, give me her attention, she did the opposite. She would engage me directly, expecting the person on the phone to hear me and, in effect, be part of a three-way conversation, just as if the friend were there in person.

Juliane’s way of being on the phone, in other words, was a way of being in the world in a way that mine is not. And that—not being in the world when you’re on the phone—is, I suspect, the biggest difference between being on the phone and, say, fiddling with the radio or CD player to find a song you like.

Speaking of the younger generation, Lohr cited another interesting study that looked at age and multitasking, one that suggests we may never get good enough at talking on the phone to make it completely safe while driving. After all, “according to conventional wisdom,” Lohr says, the young “are the most adept multitaskers.”

The younger group did 10 percent better when not interrupted. But when both groups were interrupted by a phone call, a cellphone short-text message or an instant message, the older group matched the younger group in speed and accuracy.

One of the researchers offered a theory about why:

“The older people think more slowly, but they have a faster fluid intelligence, so they are better able to block out interruptions and choose what to focus on.”

but my guess is, the effect is just a consequence of a true bottleneck in cognitive function. A Porsche 911 can’t go any faster than a Ford Focus when they’re both stuck in traffic at the entrance to the Holland Tunnel, one of the few situations in which it’s perfectly safe to use a phone in a car.


9 Responses to “Call of the beguiled”

  1. Swanny said

    Dude, yer oooooolllllllllld.

  2. digglahhh said

    This is a great entry. I’ve never been able to multitask. I can’t even watch the game (baseball, kinda but not basketball while on the phone). I can’t write even a reply like this and listen to music.

    I had a friend in high school, who used to write essays for school on a crowded train while listening to her walkman. That amazed me. I always told her that I could never do that. She didn’t understand why not. I told her that the reason was that I was a far superior writer…

    Incidentally, I AM adept at being humorous and a prick at the same time.

    I might chime in with my thoughts about only hearing one end of a conversation a bit later. Right now, I have to spit this gum out so I can go take a walk and grab some lunch.

  3. some of that may change as we become more accustomed to talking in public.

    I’m not sure about this. First, I doubt it has much to do with how we conduct our own conversations. That is, I suspect our ability to tune out distractions while participating in a cellphone conversation in public does not carry over to our ability to tune out someone else’s conversation while trying to carry on our own business.

    If you mean we will just become more used to being bombarded with shouted Bob-Newhart-style conversations in public, and learn to deal with it, I would guess that won’t happen.

    Notoriously, the most difficult stimulus to adapt to is an inconsistent one. Regular and repetitive noises are quickly tuned out after a short time, but intermittent ones jar again each time and require you to start the accommodation process over again. Cellphone conversations are intermittent both in their occurrence and their noise pattern – you don’t always hear someone on the phone, even in a crowded place, and when you do hear them, as you point out, the noise is discontinuous. These both create a stimulus that is difficult to treat as background noise.

    In addition, I don’t think that situation is going to change. Already today, virtually everyone has a cellphone. I presume they talk on them as much as they need to, and that that need is not likely to increase. (People who spend an hour a day on their cellphones aren’t going to suddenly start spending three hours a day on them – nothing is going to happen that suddenly makes that a better way to spend your time. Also, with essentially flat-rate billing, long battery life, and ubiquitous antenna coverage, there is currently no constraint on how much time they can talk, so I presume the time they do talk is their preferred maximum.) We are essentially in a equilibrium state, in which your average exposure to other people on their phones is, not as great as it could possibly be (we could all engage in non-stop phone calls during every available minute – there’s just no reason to), but as great as it needs to be given people’s desire to use the phones.

    The cellphone annoyance is not going to go away, but, also important, it’s not going to increase in intensity – which, paradoxically, is a bad thing because then it would be easier to tune out. The equilibrium state for public usage of cellphones, fortuitously but unfortunately, just happens to be right at the point of frequency/intensity to cause significant disruption with no way to ignore the problem. That’s not going to change, because the factors that dictate usage intensity are not directly related to annoyance level; wanting to eliminate the undesirable annoyance would require abandoning the desirable level of usage. The public has voted with its lips, and it likes the sound.

  4. digglahhh said

    Great post, Keith. I agree.

    Person to person conversations quickly form a cadence, open ended cell phone conversations do not, for reasons stated.

    Perhaps, we will say changes in cell phone use patterns. “Texting” has grown in popularity. Trends are so fleeting and unattached to anything in particular who knows what will happen.

  5. The idea that we’ve done all the social adapting to cellphones, a truly transformative technology, in less than a decade (or even in the 25 years since Marty Cooper first held a one-kilo brick of a carphone in his hand) that we’re going to do seems, in a word, unproven, and, frankly, extremely unlikely.

    First, the technology is going to continue to improve. As receivers improve, people will shout less. Other engineers are working on improving sound in other ways. Network capacity will increase, giving each call a wider data path. Headsets and earbuds will become easier to use and will trap sound better.

    Most importantly, people shout because they’re still used to the form factor of a landline phone, where the mouthpiece part is closer to the mouth. Even though in fact people don’t need to shout, because cellphone designers have taken that extra distance into account when they make phones and headsets and earbuds, they don’t know that the other party can hear them just fine.

    Basically, when it comes to phone habits, everything we know is wrong.

    Cellphones and cellular form factors are becoming the norm, and we will adapt our habits to it. But it takes time.

    Other developments will surely make things even better. We can’t even know every way that cellphones will change in the next decade or two. A few years ago, NASA did some very promising experiments with subvocalization that put a computer-enhanced microphone on an astronaut’s throat. If that could be made to work, it would solve most of the cellphone’s problems overnight.

    It took several decades from the development of the lightbulb to the ubiquitous screw-in design we’re accustomed to today. And how much simpler is a lightbulb than the cellular computers we’re jamming in our pockets today!

  6. digglahhh said

    Yes, Meta, but what we will not adapt to is hearing half a conversation that is subsequently absent of the rhythms we intuitively pick up on when we hear two people talking. It is our ability to make sense of these patterns that allows us to easily disregard them as background noise, no? The person on the cell is ostensibly talking to him/herself (even more so if they are sporting a Blue Tooth and you are on the opposite side).

    Yeah, and sure we are going to move toward subvocalization , but I wouldn’t call ushering in the microchipping of humans “promising.” All this technology will eventually be implanted in our bodies, I presume.

    Have we gotten to the point when people stop dismissing these contentions about microchipped, humanoid populations as wild conspiracy theory yet?

  7. Have we gotten to the point when people stop dismissing these contentions about microchipped, humanoid populations as wild conspiracy theory yet?

    We have gotten so far from that point that we talk of The Singularity, the moment in 20 or 50 years when machine or android intelligence so exceeds that of humans that we become irrelevant. The only thing that will even delay that inflection point is augmenting humans, the R&D for which is ongoing and already a reasonably big business (starting with limb prosthetics and cochlear implants and going on from there). The term was started by Vernor Vinge, a sci-fi writer who used to teach math and computer science at UC San Diego.

    For my part, I’d really like for a one of my pinkie fingers to be artificial, with alternative digits (stored in cavities in my body) that terminate in a screwdriver tip, an Exacto, and a few other doodads.

  8. digglahhh said

    Unfortunately, you’ll be programmed to jab the Exacto extension tactically into the seminal artery of the first bot you see attempting to organize a union…

  9. digglahhh said

    Oooh, quick and true story. I have a friend who several years ago got a tattoo of a circuit board on his side from below his armpit to about the bone that Marky Mark (not yet Walberg) used to sell all those Calbin Klein jeans.

    His reasoning was, “when the robots took over, they’ll know I’m down.” People wrote him off as a lunatic, and granted at that time he probably was, but not for that reason. It’s looking like good ole “Bobby Champion” will be having the last laugh…

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