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Most of carry smartphones that give us access to a large part of all the information known to humankind. So why aren't we a whole lot smarter?

In April of this year, NBC comedy program Saturday Night Live presented a skit on the "Bathroom Businessman," a system for the business person who does not want to waste time in the bathroom. Carried in an attache case, the bathroom businessman system folds out to reveal a desk, a desktop computer with a 19" screen, a rotary phone, a fax machine, a fully functional work space where the busy businessman needs it most.

"You work hard. And in this economy," announcer Bill Hader says, "you can't afford to take break." The camera then follows comedian Keenan Thompson as he unpacks his bathroom stall office, puts up shelves, assembles his computer's hard drive, updates software, and plugs in to phone jacks and modem, before scatological humor ensues.

But many of us already have an office computing and communications device that follows us even in the bathroom. It's our smartphone.

Do Smartphones Make Us More Productive?

There's no doubt that computers have made workers more productive. Almost every clerical task that once required typewriters, carbon paper, white out, and file folders is now done by computers. Communications between businesses and customers that used to require up to two weeks by snail mail are now accomplished almost instantly online. The smartphone of 2013 has roughly the same computing power as a desktop from 2005. So with 130,000,000 smartphones in the USA alone, workers should be vastly more productive, right?

Perhaps workers should be more productive, but economists say that they aren't. From 1945 to 1995, American worker productivity improved about 2.25% a year, as more and more jobs arose in the information economy. The introduction of the Internet in 1995 led to 10 years of productivity growth at 3% a year. But since the introduction of the smartphone in 2005, the growth of productivity in the American workforce has slowed down to just 1.5% per year, the lowest rate of growth since 1945. So has productivity been snatched by a flock of Angry Birds? Economists don't have a good answer.

Do Smartphones Make Us Smarter?

Medical students at the prestigious Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine are advised "Caution should also be exercised when using Google in front of patients. Students should also be cognizant of how mobile technology may be perceived by their evaluators to avoid false impressions." Indeed, most patients would prefer that their surgeons, for instance, not need to Google how to perform procedures in the middle of their operations.

Of course, not everybody is a doctor. How does constant communication affect the productivity, say, of an office worker? Dr. Gloria Mark of the University of California at Irvine found that the average office worker needs 25 minutes to get back to work after an interruption by a telephone call, and the average office worker gets calls every 11 minutes.

It would seem that the best we can hope to do is to pretend no one realizes we suffer information overload. But researchers at Carnegie-Mellon University found that's not necessarily the case.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Katz-Sidlow RJ, Ludwig A, Miller S, Sidlow R. Smartphone use during inpatient attending rounds: prevalence, patterns and potential for distraction.J Hosp Med. 2012 Oct. 7(8):595-9. doi: 10.1002/jhm.1950. Epub 2012 Jun 28.
  • Khalifian S, Markman T, Sampognaro P, Mitchell S, Weeks S, Dattilo J. Medical student appraisal: searching on smartphones. Appl Clin Inform. 2013 Feb 6. 4(1):53-60. doi: 10.4338/ACI-2012-10-CR-0047. Print 2013.
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