Oyayubi Sadai – The Thumb Generation

In Japan, they are called oyayubi sadai, or the “thumb generation.”  These knowledge workers are found in many lands, often without so official a designation, but they are instantly recognizable by their indefatigable use of their BlackBerry or other handheld device to read mail and exchange text messages.  In some circles, the BlackBerry is referred to as a crackBerry, and their habituated users are found on the beach, in churches and temples, and during conferences and meetings.

People exchange messages while driving, watching television, and eating meals.  There is no doubt that many of these mobile technologies have enabled us to become more productive in certain respects.  But they also can make us somewhat unproductive if carried too far.  Some newer technologies are inherently less efficient than older ones.  For example, it might take five minutes to thumb a text message, while leaving the same message in voicemail might take 30 seconds.

It appears that many of the productivity gains which mobile device makers would like to attribute to their products are illusory at best.  While these devices enable multi-tasking, most users are not aware of their own limitations in terms of what they can accomplish at once.  That in turn leads to multislacking, increasing errors, short-circuiting attention spans, creating unnecessary stress, and actually causing tasks to take longer than they ordinarily would.

It is not unusual to find a knowledge worker who has a mobile phone, a PDA, an MP3 player, a laptop, and a pager.  The stress of merely keeping these devices charged is enough to make one feel overwhelmed.  Device manufacturers have not made it easy for such road warriors carrying these tools – each of these has a separate charger, ear plugs from an MP3 player aren’t usually compatible with a mobile phone, and chargers tend to be heavier and larger than the devices they support.

But the rush that some knowledge workers claim to get may have a basis in reality; all that typing, punching, thumbing, and scrolling can cause electrical stimulation of the brain, which in turn activates our dopamine-reward system, unleashing a pleasure-inducing rush.

This constant “on” mode can also trigger cognitive overload.  Most mobile devices compete for their owner’s attention in a manner that most resembles a family pet: they make noise and blink until attention is given.  However, the constant back and forth dilutes knowledge worker performance and could unleash a backlash against mobile technologies.  Already, the teenagers who led the way with instant messaging and text messaging are holding NTMA (no text messaging allowed) parties.  Amtrak introduced Quiet Cars in the mid-1990s in response to traveler complaints about incessant mobile phone usage.  Perhaps today, quiet is no longer sufficient.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

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