Technology and the Common Good

I was preparing to hand my ticket and ID to the security agent at the airport when suddenly another person cut in front of me and dropped his ticket and ID on the agent’s desk. It didn’t seem like he was being rude, just totally unaware. He was talking intently on his cell phone and didn’t seem to notice either me or the security person. After being cleared, he bustled ahead to the security check area still focused on his phone call, never glancing at the security agent or at me.

It was as though I needed another example to get the point, because when I started walking down the ramp to the airplane, the line suddenly stopped. When the line started to move again, the woman in front of me, talking on her cell phone, remained in place. Last I saw she was still standing there as people walked around her.

These twin events, repeated frequently in all sorts of settings, got me thinking about the role of the cell phone in 21st-century communications. Throughout history, humans have always divided time between focused one-on-one conversation and larger gatherings including time as a part of a community. It seems to me the cell phone has shifted this balance toward more one-on-one communications, taking away the time spent in the larger group. It is not that the cell phone, like any other technology, is inherently bad. It isn’t. But like any other technology, it has a tendency that we need to be aware of, so that we can use it wisely.

I can hear you objecting, “I can do both things at once, and the cell phone has opened a new door for me.” You may think you can, but in fact research has shown that you cannot.

Here’s the way brain scientist John Medina put this in his brilliant best-selling book Brain Rules:

“To put it bluntly, research shows we can’t multitask. We are biologically incapable of processing attention rich inputs simultaneously,” p. 85.

Medina goes on to demonstrate that we can do two things at once if only one requires attention. For example, you can walk and talk at the same time. In this case, walking has become second nature and is accomplished without thinking, while the brain concentrates on the talking. The test comes, in an intense conversation, when you encounter an obstacle. You either lose your place in the conversation or stumble. I remember something similar when I mowed the lawn or washed the car while thinking through an argument. I always recognized in doing this I was not paying much attention to the mowing or washing.

This observation has huge implications for our workplace, our personal lives, and our role as a member of society. I will identify a few of these where the cell phone is at the center.

Business Meetings

The relative strengths and weaknesses of electronic conferencing vs. face-to-face meetings has been discussed in this column before. There are the issues of trust, casual conversation between events, and the naturalness associated with moving off agenda to deal with the underlying, real issues. These are tougher to develop electronically. On the other hand, the time and cost savings compared with meeting face-to-face are important, as is the data-rich environment.

But I heard something recently from someone who likes electronic meetings. The person said he liked such meetings because able to do other things during the meeting. In fact, the person told me that in an electronic meeting he routinely schedules other things: building a presentation, having side conversations, or doing instant messaging were a few of the examples given.

I thought this might be an isolated situation until I came across a Forbes Insight report from 2009 titled, “Business Meetings: the Case for Face-to-Face.” For this report the authors surveyed 760 executives (half the respondents represented small businesses (under 100 employees), while 20 percent were from midsized businesses (100-999 employees), and 30 percent were from enterprises (1000-plus employees). In terms of title, 48 percent of respondents were either owners or C-level executives.

The respondents were asked, “Why do you prefer technology-enabled meetings?” The first three responses were expected: saves time (92 percent), saves money (88 percent), and more flexibility on timing and location (76 percent). But the fourth highest response was, “allows me to multitask “(64 percent). So perhaps this is more common than I had previously thought.

This suggests that many are not cognizant of the research telling us that we cannot do this effectively. Or, they may simply not want to participate fully in the meeting, being their for defensive reasons when issues closely related to their own tasks are raised. The tell-tale signal that someone is doing something else is when the person responds to a direct question with, “Excuse me, could you repeat the question?”


Many of us in business have been a part of a networking session, a gathering of professionals for the purpose of gaining new insight, new customers, or new colleagues. Yet these days when you go to one of these events it is not unusual to see someone standing in a corner talking on a cell phone. The person has replaced meeting new people with talking to already established bosses or colleagues (or friends).

When you think about this, it is much like the contrast between the search function and the browse function. Search has been improved so much in the past decade that we sometimes forget about the importance of browsing and discovering things we don’t know enough to ask for. When we talk on the cell phone, we are doing search — connecting with someone we were seeking or who is seeking us. At a networking event, we are browsing. Both are important, but I wonder if we have moved the mix toward search.

This is not to say search is bad — it is fantastic. But there is still a role for the browse function, and our technology is enabling us to do more searching than was previously possible. We still have only 24 hours in a day and each encounter replaces another potential encounter. I wonder what this does to innovation, since many new ideas come from chance encounters with the unexpected?

I am certain there are many other places in business where we do more search, and hence less browse, gaining one opportunity but losing another.

Personal Lives

Clearly these same ideas have a great deal to do with the family as well. I know a young woman who says she spends all of her time with her kids. But every time I see her, she is texting or talking on the phone. She is with her kids (physical proximity) but not with her kids (attention rich). This extends to many of our relationships in our increasingly communications rich world.

A well-known African proverb says, “It takes a village to raise a child.” To make this work, the village (e.g., teachers, neighbors, police, the store owner) must both know the child and be aware of that child. Are we losing this as we each person retreats to his or her cocoon of direct connections, completely unaware of others around them? I wonder.


As I was walking through the mall recently, I was watching person after person walk by completely disconnected from others passing by, focused again on the cell phone conversation. I couldn’t help but wonder, if a child were abducted would anybody notice? Would there be any witnesses for a trial if everyone was disconnected from their surroundings?

There is an important notion of “the common good,” what we do that benefits others in the common spaces. It is part of being in a flourishing society. I like what the biblical prophet Jeremiah said, “Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile.” Even people who were not a part of a free society, but exiles, were challenged to work for the common good, not just their own. So we need to spend some of our time simply observing what is going on around us, and this means not connected for our own personal benefit.

Perhaps this is what Yogi Berra, noted American icon, meant when he said, “You can observe a lot by just watching.”

So What Should We Do?

Am I suggesting we should discard our cell phones, stop texting, and disconnect? Some would, but I won’t. I greatly appreciate my cell phone and love the way it enables me to connect.

But I believe that all of us should be challenged to spend some time deliberately disconnected. We can only give attention to one thing at a time. So we need to choose times when we will turn off our cell phones, disconnect, and observe the world around us. We might truly participate in an electronic meeting. We might make a great connection at a networking event. We might connect better with our kids and grandkids and others we care about. And we might actually become better citizens.


There was a time when the rhythm of life forced us to balance the search and browse pieces of our lives. When we left the office, there was no phone till we got home. When we went to the mall, we shopped and interacted with clerks and other shoppers. Because of the cell phone, we must now make this mix a deliberate choice.

There is not a one-size-fits-all solution to this challenge. Some are very well disciplined and balance their mix as a matter of course. I admit I am not as good in this area. So far I have chosen to not get access to email on my cell phone, and I have not acquired a Blackberry or an iPhone. Great tools, but these create choices that have business, family, and societal impacts.

Yesterday, I was waiting for someone for a meeting at a coffee shop and he was 10 minutes late. He sent me an email saying he had been delayed, expecting that I would access it from my phone, but I didn’t get it until I got home. Should I move into the 21st century with my own access device? I am still trying to decide.


Al Erisman is executive editor of Ethix, which he co-founded in 1998.
He spent 32 years at The Boeing Company, the last 11 as director of technology.
He was selected as a senior technical fellow of The Boeing Company in 1990,
and received his Ph.D. in applied mathematics from Iowa State University.

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