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Unformatted text preview: C OPYRIGHT 2004 SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, INC. ! Digital gadgets demand ever more of our attention with their rude and thoughtless interruptions. Engineers are now testing computers, phones and cars that sense when you’re busy and spare you from distraction CONSIDERATE COMPUTING C OMPUTING By W. Wayt Gibbs “YOUR BATTERY IS NOW FULLY CHARGED,” ANNOUNCED THE LAPTOP COMPUTER to its owner, Donald A. Norman, with enthusiasm—perhaps even a hint of pride?—in its synthetic voice. Norman, a chief advocate of the notion that computers and appliances ought to be programmed with something akin to emotions, might normally have smiled at the statement. Instead he blushed— and no doubt wished that his computer could share his embarrassment. For at that moment, Norman was onstage at a dais, having addressed a conference room of cognitive scientists and computer researchers, and his Powerbook was still plugged into the public address system. Many in the audience chuckled at the automated faux pas and shook their heads. The moderator, flustered, shot Norman a less than sympathetic look. And yet we’ve all been there. Our cell phones ring during movies. Telemarketers interrupt our dinners with friends. Our laptops throw up screensavers in the middle of presentations. “You’ve got mail!” derails our train of thought just as we get in the groove. w w w. s c ia m . c o m To be sure, distractions and multitasking are hardly new to the human condition. “A complicated life, continually interrupted by competing requests for attention, is as old as procreation,” laughs Ted Selker of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab. But increasingly, it is not just our kids pulling us three ways at once; it is also a relentless barrage of e-mail, alerts, alarms, calls, instant messages and automated notifications, none of them coordinated and all of them oblivious to whether we are busy— or even present. “It’s ridiculous that my own computer can’t figure out whether I’m in front of it, but a public toilet can,” exclaims Roel Vertegaal of Queen’s University in Ontario. Humanity has connected itself through roughly three billion networked telephones, computers, traffic lights — even refrigerators and picture frames — because these things make life more convenient and keep us available to those we care about. So although we could simply turn off the phones, close the e-mail program, and shut the office door when it is time for a meeting or a stretch of concentrated work, we usually don’t. We just endure the consequences. “We take major productivity hits with each interruption,” says Rosalind Picard, a cognitive scientist at the M.I.T. Media Lab. People juggle the myriad demands of work and daily life by maintaining a mental list of tasks to be done. An interruption of just 15 seconds causes most people to lose part of that to-do list, according to experiments by Gilles O. Einstein of Furman University. Numerous studies have shown that when people are unexpectedly inter...
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