Are Smart Phones Making Us…Uh, Less Smart?

Memory is one of my talents.   Though hardly the stuff of poetry, one use for my memory is tracking how people like to be contacted.   Nancy texts, Will sends Twitter DMs, Alison only reads email during the week…

I send out a quarterly email newsletter.   It’s a select, permission-based list; if I don’t have value to offer to you, I won’t ask your permission.   It’s a labor of love, requited when people forward the newsletter to a friend, send me kind notes, or mention it in conversation.

To avoid spam-only relationships, usually I connect with people offline, too, or remove them from the email list.  Maybe they said “yes” to be polite.   (Thanks!)

The newsletter software package offers rough statistics, like how many opens, or clicks on links.

From 2009 to 2010, my open rate has gone from 50% to just above 40%.

This still far exceeds industry averages.   The software returns imperfect data.   I’m boring.

Beyond facts or fears, it feels like there’s more going on.  It’s been bugging me.

We all know dark email stories about conversations gone wrong:  “reply all” with a not-for-email comment; compounding interpersonal issues with quick responses that are misunderstood.   (Pick up the phone!)

Yet there are more subtle fails.   A response, but to one point in the mail.   An element presented as hypothesis, responded to as fact.

Or, a response makes me wonder if I’m insane.   I see the subject line, I know what I wrote (that’s there, too) and the response is so off topic that I wonder if my mail was even read.

When I got my smartphone, I used the word “love”.

But I never mastered typing with thumbs and fingers.    So I read email on the phone, respond from a keyboard.   This can create trouble:   something important marked as read, and buried by new mail before I return to the office.   And I don’t respond at all.  Epic fail.

Are my newsletter stats and seemingly disconnected email responses an artifact of smartphone behavior?  The newsletter’s not easily read via mobile; responding to the 8 points in my three paragraphs, complicated.

I get it.   Starting now, an experiment:  no emails longer than 8 sentences.   (What to do about the newsletter, unclear — thus renewed blogging, tweeting and entry to Facebook.)

We use email to manage people, too.   We’re in different locations, I want a paper trail, when it’s in writing they’ll understand me…sometimes, I’m lazy.

Business case studies of the space shuttle disasters illustrate the sometimes heartbreaking consequences of boiling the wrong things down, too simply.

Forget my communications issues:  can we manage people by smartphone?

More to the point:  is it really smart?

(Photo, adapted from “what, no cell phone?” by Beth Rankin, used under Creative Commons License.

4 thoughts on “Are Smart Phones Making Us…Uh, Less Smart?

  1. Anne,

    I love this – I believe the “less smartening” of us extends into other realms of technology as well. Auto spell check has decreased my spelling competency and my math tasks have been outsourced to excel. As I have been researching leadership decision making I am recognizing that our world is so complex that we have outsourced all modeling of it and a significant amount of decision making to technology.

    …and then we get into relationships and technology – whoa! Simultaneously connected and distanced. I can communicate with friends and family across the world from one simple screen, yet find that communication with co-workers who sit within walking distance often happens through the same impersonal screen. I love your question, “is it really smart?”


    1. Sandi, I’m so glad you stopped by! The simultaneous connection/distance really has a double edge, doesn’t it.

      I was thinking back to high school and college when my circle of friends wrote letters when we were apart. Our parents wrote to us. Entire conversations took place, drawn out over many weeks. Lots of pauses, yet continuity.

      A root cause of so many of these email problems is that we don’t pause. Either to really read the note, or before we hit send. We think we’re responding, but we’re really reacting.

      A few times last year I found myself writing back and forth, conversationally, with someone on the other side of the earth…early morning here, very late at night there. After the WTC attacks, because I’m in lower Manhattan, I received emails from around the world checking on me. Connection, in these cases with people that it would be impossible for me to see. (And maybe, as a result I was more careful with these connections that felt more precious.)

      Challenging myself to write shorter emails is forcing me to pause, and even to to look at whether email is the way to go.

      I’ve been thinking about Nilofer Merchant’s post on how we’re willing to invest our time as we work to progress projects; you might enjoy this too.

      1. One reason I’m warming to twitter is that it challenges me to create meaning in a limited space…and glad you liked the post. Be well, Sandi, and thanks so much for your thoughts.

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