THE BLOG
09/19/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Technology's Unintended Consequences

Three random news stories in the past week connected for me in a moment of clarity - and with a bit of trepidation.

First, the terrible helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft crash that killed nine over the Hudson.

Then, a seemingly unrelated taxicab accident that took the life of a small child in Harlem.

And finally, the news that Michael Jackson's doctor left him alone on the anesthetic Propofol to make a cellphone call.

Over the past 20 years, we've built a powerful and fast-growing network of electronic connectivity. It's created what science fiction writers have imagined for years, a kind of a hive mind of interconnectivity.

But it's done something else as well.

For many people, the virtual world they connect to digitally is far more interesting than the mundane day to day world that they toil in from 9 to 5.

Individually, the answers are easy of course. The Air Traffic Controller should be monitoring the skies. The Taxi Driver should be watching the road. The Doctor should be attending to his patient.

But that's far too simple a way to look at the real social and digital trends that are at play here.

First, take a minute to listen to what's on the other end of the text or phone conversation. In some cases, it's just a social call, a moment to say hello to a spouse or friend, or a harmless bit of gossip or flirtation. But just as often it's someone multi-tasking -- trying to manage a health insurance reimbursement that requires half an hour of hold time before an operator will help you sort out a bill. Or a parent trying to coordinate a schedule with an after-school activity, a babysitter, or a child's complex set of play dates.

Simply put, we're social creatures in an increasingly alienating and isolating world, and while our face to face interactions are increasingly impersonal and empty in the workplace, the cellphone and its tie to our wider digital life is more than a distraction -- it's an essential connection, and one we're hardly going to legislate away.

Nine years ago I learned this lesson. The company that I was running at the time had a large number of young employees. I found out that there was a huge amount of AOL chat traffic on our office network. As there was no business purpose for chat, I had the IT folks cut it off. Bad idea. I was overrun with complaints. Angry complaints. People needed to text message to keep connected, to plan their lives after work, to stay engaged in the wider world. This was 2000 -- before the Internet explosion that we now all take for granted. I learned my lesson, chat was turned back on. And today no one in a workplace that hires creative young people would dare to cut that digital lifeline -- being both "at work" and "connected" is an essential part of daily life.

We are both physical and virtual -- and often those worlds collide.

So, what do we do? The easy answer is to make laws and ban cellphones from certain kinds of jobs. The problem is -- which ones?

Does a police officer get to carry a personal cellphone? (I saw a cop texting on the subway platform the other day.) What about a nuclear power plant employee? Or a truck driver? Or a train conductor? (There have been a number of terrible train crashes attributed to texting.)

The simple fact is that many, if not most, jobs have mission-critical moments during which distractions from a call or a text can have catastrophic results.

The x-ray tech who misreads your mammogram. The IRS auditor who flags you after doing his math wrong. The construction worker, heavy machine operator, exterminator, chiropractor -- almost any job requires care and attention. And given the nature of the phone to be at least a distraction or at worst a disturbance, it's going to be very hard to legislate our virtual, digital world out of our physical real world.

One solution may be to acknowledge that in our new, always-on world we're not going to get 8 hours of focus and attention from human beings who need to be connected and engaged. Perhaps the courtesy to take a break that is afforded to smokers needs to be offered to people to connect with their social network. A digital break would help acknowledge that personal communication is important, but that it can't be allowed if it provides a distraction that makes it impossible for professionals to be focused and careful when doing what they are doing on the job.

The other perhaps more dramatic thought is to take a hard look at the jobs and tasks that we increasingly ask people to do as part of their daily lives. Whether sitting in the cab of a truck, or the cockpit of an airplane, or behind the counter at McDonald's, humans require diversity, challenges and complexity in order to remain engaged and focused on what they're doing.

One could argue that working 8 hours a day in a job with no challenges, no opportunity to learn or advance, and no ability to be fully human is a kind of death as well. Perhaps not one with a body count, like a train crash, but it may be that people's hunger to be digitally engaged is a symptom of something more pervasive. It's not what they're running toward, it's what they're running from.

(originally published in JackMyers MediaBiz Bloggers.