Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Digital Addiction: The Dark Side of Technology

When absolutely everyone on the plane is 35,000 feet high and clueless, something's terribly wrong.

Excuse me. Is whatever’s on your laptop so enthralling that you can’t look up for, oh, I don’t know, 91 minutes? Or are you just bored with flying this plane?

That’s the question that came to mind as I read that the two Northwest Airlines pilots who overshot Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport last Wednesday weren’t asleep, drunk or even embroiled in a heated business discussion when they ignored a barrage of urgent radio signals, cockpit lights and warning signs for what the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said today was a one minute more than an hour and a half.

The two highly experienced pilots weren’t even flying the plane. They were on their laptops and lost track of time, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) stated. So were many of their passengers, I’m sure, but they weren’t responsible for flying the airplane.

Precisely what the pilots were doing on their laptops may never be shared with us or with the 144 passengers and three flight attendants who occupied the cabin of the “auto-piloted” Airbus 320. All we know now is that during the 91 minutes they were off the grid everyone on that plane was 35,000 feet high and clueless.

It reminded me of the Amtrak commuter train engineer who was text messaging on his cell phone 22 seconds before he rammed into a freight train in Chatsworth, Calif., in September 2008, killing 25 passengers and injuring about 140, many of them critically.

At least no one died this time. When air traffic controllers couldn’t get the attention of the wayward pilots, other airline pilots found an alternate radio frequency and managed to get them to put down their laptops and get back to reality.

Northwest Flight 188, which had begun its flight in San Diego, turned around over Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and eventually landed safely in Minneapolis. The FAA has revoked the licenses of both pilots. They have 10 days to appeal the ruling to the NTSB.

You know, there is a basic moral code we like to think we share as humans: We have an obligation to act responsibly when we are in a position to hurt or kill other people. It’s simply wrong to endanger others in order to take care of personal business, whether you’re a pilot, a train engineer, or a soccer parent.

So why do so many of us break this Golden Rule? Why do we talk or text on our cell phones while we’re driving? Why do we feel the need to update our Facebook statuses or tweet our every move on Twitter at stoplights when the information we’re sharing can wait? Why do we spend hours online only to look up and realize that we’re late for work or have missed an important appointment?

It’s digital addiction. And we’ve got it bad.

“When we think of addiction, most of us think of alcoholism or drug abuse. But the easy access, anonymity, and constant availability of the Internet, email, texting, chatting and Twittering has led to a new form of compulsive and dependent behavior,” writes Dr. Gary Small, a UCLA Psychiatry Professor and a renowned expert on technology and the brain. His name for its sufferers: techno-addicts.

How does it work?

Dopamine, the brain chemical that’s responsible for addictions, is what drives digital dependency, Small explains on his blog Brain Bootcamp, which appears on the Psychology Today site.

When you do something that you find pleasurable, your brain releases dopamine. That feels good. It’s like a runner’s high. When your brain wants more dopamine, you turn to your addiction of choice to get it.

“The same neural pathways in the brain that reinforce dependence on substances can reinforce compulsive technology behaviors that are just as addictive and potentially destructive,” writes Small.

Digital addiction comes in all forms: social networking, random Web browsing, iTunes purchases, video games, gambling, stock market quotes, and sports scores. Oh, and eBay. Yes, eBay is addictive.

But does engaging in these activities make us digital derelicts? Not necessarily. Most of the time, we’re not risking lives in the pursuit of our virtual thrills. Generally, we’re in a safe environment – at home or at work – but we’re still just as addicted. And we’re often making a conscious choice to interact anti-socially, using a digital device rather than speaking directly to other people.

We can sit at our computers for hours without talking – convincing ourselves that networking online is more important than talking to the real, live person sitting next to us. And when we seek more “immediacy,” many of us turn to instant messaging or video chats.

This reality-avoidance behavior is emblematic of the damaging effect digital addiction is having on all of us. It’s like one of those Redneck jokes: If you text your wife to ask her if she’d like to engage in sex, you might be a digital addict.

Let’s hope we all learn from the mistakes of the Amtrak engineer and the Northwest Airlines pilots. And, let’s hope we learn not to drive with one hand on the wheel and the other on a cell phone. That’s a lesson we can learn from Maria Shriver.

The first lady of California has been caught on camera three times since June talking on her cell phone while driving. That’s in direct violation of the law that her husband, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, supported and shepherded into state law last year. It’s inexcusable and it’s dangerous.

I have a visor-mounted Bluetooth device in my car. It pairs with my cell as soon as I hop in the driver’s seat and makes calls on voice command using my iPhone’s address book. It was less than $100 online. And the nice thing about getting one for yourself is that you can earn a gold star for effort while engaging in one of my favorite digital addictions: online shopping.

Hey, we’re all ensnared in these habits. But we can put them in perspective and use them to our advantage. We can use them to become less careless human beings.

UCLA’s Dr. Small believes that, in some respects, technology is actually altering the way our brains work and making us smarter.

Like all addicts, we have to take the first step if we want to conquer our demons. And that’s why I’m going to finish this column and get off my computer. One thing to remember, though: When the digital devices that we say make our lives better actually become our lives, no one wins (except the technology companies).

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Apples to Lemons: Microsoft’s New Retail Showrooms

Hey, I love a blue screen of death as much as anyone, but I wouldn’t drive to the mall just to see one.

I have a Mac. My husband has a PC.  This makes for hours of hilarious fun.

When he starts to fire up his computer, I set the timer on my iPhone for 10 minutes. That’s how long it takes his PC to boot up. Then I set the stopwatch on my iPhone to see how long it will take him to ask if he can use my Mac while his antivirus software runs a scan. (My Mac doesn’t get viruses.) When that’s done, it’s either the blue screen of death (BSOD) or a complete crash. “I hope you backed up your data,” I say in a condescending tone that I now have down to a science. The fun never stops.

Now the frivolity is coming to a mall near you. Microsoft opened the first of its highly anticipated Apple Store knock-offs Thursday (Oct. 22, 2009) in Scottsdale, Ariz. I watched the video and you can, too. They're all over YouTube.

Oh, how hard they tried to make it look as hip and as cool as an Apple Store opening or a new Apple product launch. They even hired Apple employees by paying them significantly higher wages to work in the store and hike the cool factor. The signature all-glass front window revealed a similar layout. A line of people waited in an orderly, cordoned-off line. And when the doors opened, employees in Apple-like color-coded T-shirts executed a somewhat pathetic re-enactment of a new Apple Store opening, complete with clapping and high-fives for everyone.

Now, you may not love Apple as much as I do. Perhaps you even find Apple’s arrogance annoying. The clapping, the shirts, the Concierge team, the One-to-One training that actually educates customers so they won’t feel powerless when they are alone at home with their computers.

Maybe you laugh condescendingly when, on your way to Macy’s, you see customers actually getting their computers fixed in the store by the oh-so cutely named Genius Bar. But think about it, when your Dell breaks, do you think the Guru Bar at the Microsoft Windows Store is going to fix it. The “gurus” there won’t; they can’t. Microsoft doesn’t make your PC. It simply makes the operating system that makes your computer run, then crash. Apple makes its own products and its own software. Apple teaches you to use them and fixes them if they fail you. Apple is the Nordstrom of technology when it comes to customer service.

The Microsoft “store” is a clone, all right, but it’s a mutant clone. It’s not bright, sleek and hip, and it’s certainly not a store – if, by store, you mean a place you go to buy things. It’s a showroom. There are computers, but Microsoft doesn’t make computers. Apple does. You can buy copies of Windows 7, the new operating system Microsoft rolled out to drive away memories of the bad dream that was Vista. And you can buy the few hardware products Microsoft does make – the Zune and the X-Box game console.  But if you were going to buy a Zune or an X-Box, wouldn’t you keep doing what you've done all along -- go to Best Buy or Walmart or Amazon in search of a discount?

It strikes me as more of a museum than a store. At first it seemed like comparing apples to oranges, but then it struck me that the fruit of Microsoft’s tree this time around is more like a lemon. So, yeah, it’s like comparing an Apple to a lemon.

As for me, I’ll take a pass when they open one of their “stores” near me. After all, I can observe the pitfalls of Microsoft Windows in the comfort of my own home.

Note: If you liked this obviously biased bit of Apple flattery, you’ll love this video.