Monday, August 23, 2010

The Harmful Effects of Text

A couple of weeks ago, we took a ride on a tour boat at San Antonio’s River Walk. Over the decades, the city has taken what started out as a glorified drainage ditch and transformed it into a tourist attraction, complete with shops, restaurants, hotels, historic sites, and nice sidewalks on each side of the not-very-deep “river,” which is actually as tamed and controlled as anything you’ll see at Six Flags. At one point on the tour, the guide pointed out a place where the sidewalk on one side of the river took a sudden jog to the left, so that if you kept going straight you’d walk into the river. He said he was watching the other day as a well-dressed businesswoman came down the sidewalk, busily engaged in texting on her cellphone. The next thing he knew, she’d walked straight into the river, which was fortunately only about four feet deep at that point. She kept her cool enough to hold her phone way above her head to keep it dry as passersby helped her out. I wonder what the person on the other end thought was going on.

Any portable technology that engages our visual attention is potentially capable of causing such problems. I’m sure that once it became possible to print books that were small enough to carry in one hand and read while walking, the occasional absent-minded scholar in 16th-century Bologna was seen to walk over the edge of a quay into the Po River while reading Dante. But texting engages one’s attention more than reading does. I say this not from personal experience but from observation, since my personal view of texting is rather dim. The one-two-three stroke business on the numeric keypad reeks of compromise, and so do the miniature typewriter keyboards with keys that are easily usable only by children who are too young to write. But obviously, young people have taken to texting, and even some people my age, though it does seem to appeal to women in their 50s more than men.

Like any other communications technology, texting brings people more in contact with each other, and most ethical systems view that as basically a good thing. So if you put texting under the microscope of engineering ethics, it’s fair to say that it is innocent until specific charges prove it guilty in one way or another. Of course, there are times and places where texting is plain wrong, such as when you’re driving a car, bus, or train. And accidents have been traced to just such texting, as the National Traffic Safety Board found in the September 2008 crash of a commuter train in Chatsworth, California that killed 25 people when the driver’s attention was distracted by texting. But in such cases of flagrant misconduct, texting can be at worst charged with being an accessory to the crime. With good training and good sense, we can avoid most such accidents.

Part of these problems with texting accidents is simply inexperience. People try all sorts of things with new technologies, things that the developers can never dream of, and in the nature of things, some of the new uses just don’t work out. That lady who walked straight into the river is going to be a lot more careful about where she is the next time she starts texting. Maybe we’ll have laws about instant dismissal of any train or bus operators caught texting on the job. We are still only a few years down the learning curve on texting, so a lot of these issues will lessen in frequency and severity with time.

Then there is the slippery-slope argument that texting is one more step down a path that leads to a nation or world of isolated wired androids, half human and half technology, each enmeshed in one’s own little cocoon of gizmos, and regarding plain old-fashioned person-to-person meetings as ancient relics of an energy-wasteful dark age. The slightly creepy thing about texting is that you can do it without anybody near you (in real space) noticing. On a recent trip, I was about to remind my wife to call my sister when she told me she’d been texting her for the last twenty minutes, and everything was all arranged.

There are good aspects to texting compared to actual talking on the cellphone. In a world where everybody texted rather than talked, there’d be no one-sided private or intimate conversations carried on in the setting of a public bus or train. And deaf people must have rejoiced when the first text-capable cellphones came out. So compared to the original use of cellphones, texting has its positive aspects from a noise-abatement point of view.

Still, I can’t help but feel that the actual operation of texting could be improved. Maybe they’ll develop eye-position-reading technology to where you just have to look at the letters on an on-screen display in sequence to make them appear in the text. This kind of technology is still in human-factors labs now, but a lot of stuff out there in the consumer market now started in research labs a few years ago. That way you wouldn’t use your fingers for anything except holding the phone. Or, we could promote a technique that has been proved in head-to-head contests to yield the fastest one-handed electronic communications possible: Morse code, which uses only one key (it's all in the timing of the dots and dashes). I heard about a TV show in which the producers rounded up a couple of teenagers who claimed they could text really fast, and then found a couple of old-time radio amateurs (probably about my age) who were CW whizzes. “CW” stands for “continuous wave” which is ham lingo for Morse code. The two teams were handed the same text to send, and the Morse guys beat out the texting teenagers by sending and receiving about twice as fast. I am told that there are a few apps out there which let you send and receive Morse instead of text, and to me, it makes sense. Morse is just another language, like French, and if we just taught it to everybody along with cursive writing (if anyone still learns that), we could get rid of all this one-two-three business and Lilliputian keyboards and, hey, why stop there? How about a one-key computer? You read it here first.

Sources: The San Antonio River Walk’s official website is Check it out the next time you’re in San Antonio. I’d give the tour guide’s name if I could remember it.

1 comment:

  1. There was recently a very sad accident in northern NJ when a young woman was hit and killed by a train while she was texting. Apparently she got off of a train (at the station) and went around a barrier, not realizing that another train was coming in the opposite direction on the second track.