Tag Archives: texting

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Out of Touch

If a pilot had to use his stubby fingers to indicate on a screen where he wants to land, flights to Chicago would surely end up in Indianapolis or Lake Michigan.

Touchscreens tend to be oblivious to my commands. The ones I try to use always seem uncertain about whether anyone is actually present. This problem of not noticing me might show up on a self serve scanner at a grocery store, at an ATM, in my car, or maybe just an ordinary phone.

These screens make me feel like I’m knocking on doors that no one wants to answer. Maybe this what it is like to be ghosted by a machine. Or perhaps I’m slow to pick up some sort of cosmic cue that my number is up.  It’s also just a little demeaning to encounter a customer service robot that won’t talk to you.

My wife wonders why I don’t text more. She must be kidding. In my hands, pushing the crummy images of keys on a phone is the equivalent of trying to play an ‘air guitar’ louder.  It is no surprise that texting rates are higher with girls and women.  Their fingers come closest to fitting on the fake touch keyboards. I know a few guys who text. But I suspect farmers and men who do a lot of manual labor aren’t big on thumbing their way through a message.

Of course its all most younger users know. But they should at least consider the possibility that touchscreens are one of the least satisfying electronics “innovations” of our times. They seem to be used by manufacturers because it is cheaper to make a virtual switch than an authentic one. And since we think we need to carry a computer around in our pocket, a virtual keyboard is going to be part of the package.  But I would be happier if this this failure of electrical design and execution is not considered some sort of achievement.

Public touchscreens are even worse. Their smears accumulate from the fingers of countless others, meaning that we are picking up involuntary lab specimens of everyone who came before us. We might as well be kissing doorknobs.

The cooling and heating in one of our cars is controlled using a touchscreen, often giving us Phoenix heat when we would prefer mountain cool. A good new car will likely have real click-stop knobs for controlling temperatures and fans. In a word, they are ergonomic and much more satisfying to use.

All of this makes me wonder if the displays in airliners are touchscreens. We should hope not. The controls that matter in planes are probably real keypads, reliable switches or levers adjusted manually. If a pilot had to use his stubby index finger to indicate on a screen display where he wants to land, flights to Chicago would surely end up in Indianapolis or Lake Michigan.

A tech guy at National Public Radio describes my condition as “zombie fingers.” Somehow my digits aren’t producing enough of the tiny electrical field a screen needs in order to sense a command. The solution is apparently a “capacitive stylus,” a sharp tool that a person keeps with them that will generate the necessary electrical field. Think of it as a sharp pencil, and probably one that can easily be misplaced until someone has the misfortune of sitting on it.


Attention Without Deficits

Texting_Emoji commons wikimedia
                          Source: Commons wikimedia

The challenge for all of us is to know when we are part of a true audience: when our presence is part of the presenter’s consciousness.

The Broadway actress Patti LuPone is apparently at the end of her tether. As was recently reported in the New York Times, during a performance of a play at Lincoln Center she grew frustrated with an audience member who texted continuously through an entire act.  The texter was downfront, just a few feet from the actors. Finally, at the conclusion of the last scene LuPone grabbed the offending phone from the audience member as she left the stage.

The problem of audience members otherwise engaged has been more common in recent years, notwithstanding pleas from theater managers that audiences shut down their arsenals of personal hardware before the lights go down.

As for LuPone, the multiple Tony winner reports that she is utterly defeated by audience members staring into blue screens.  With dismay she notes that she may give up working in live theater.1

Anyone who makes any kind of presentation to a group knows how daunting it can be to remain effective when an audience member visible to the presenter has decided to opt for an electronic environment over the one they are in.  Any electronic surrogate that gets more attention than the human who striving to connect is bound to produce some justifiable anger. Making a choice in favor of the device not only signals a kind of aggressive indifference to the performer, but other audience members as well. In its own small way, it’s an tacit act of sabotage against a presenter who has a right to expect at least minimal responsiveness.

To say that as a culture we have a problem with granting others our sustained attention is obvious, and not completely attributable to our growing obsession with constant connectivity.  Commanding the interest of others always requires the mastery of a very narrow path that threads its way between vast spaces of boredom and distraction.

Cayleigh Goodson aptly illustrates this lack of focus that seems to make attention deficits an emerging norm .

Research on the nature of the fickle human attention span includes a lot of cautionary conclusions.  Among them,

  1. Attention Is Intermittent Rather Than Continuous. We make a serious mistake if we believe that humans give themselves over to just one thing at a time. This only happens in times of emergency.  Otherwise, our attention to one object wonders, turning on and off faster than lights on a traffic signal.  This is why oral presentations need some tactful redundancy.
  2. Demands On Americans For Attention Are Enormous. It comes as no surprise that we have immersed ourselves in environments that flood us with messages. In the pre-electronic world it was not always this way.  Previous generations more or less chose their communication moments, especially when work was a more solitary process. Now the arrows are mostly reversed. Those moments mostly choose us: a result of the constant connectivity of e-mail, texts and other proliferating forms of social media.
  3. The Rate Of Decay For The Retention Of Content Is Very Steep.  We could not function effectively if burdened with the cognitive consequences of all that we take in.  So our brains protect our sanity by discarding most of the data that washes over us.  With its emphasis on ceaseless mayhem, news alone would drain our abilities to act on the premise that every event is potentially transformative.  So our restless information-processing requires that we ignore a lot, sometimes making us useless as engaged interlocuteurs.

From this last perspective, Patti LuPone is just another momentary intrusion in a continuous parade of incoming stimuli. But she has a right to be ticked off. The challenge for all of us is to know when we are part of a true audience.  There’s a simple imperative we need to honor:  When our presence is part of the presenter’s consciousness, we should act on the clear obligation to be responsive to their efforts.


1Erik Piepenburg “Hold the Phone, It’s Patti LuPone,” New York Times, July 9, 2015.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu