Device attraction, life distraction

Gary Baldwin, for HealthLeaders News , July 10, 2007

Here's a memory from the HIMSS event in February that will stay with me to the grave--or early senility, whichever comes first. Because I arrived late for the keynote speech, I had to sit in the furthest reaches of the upper balcony at the New Orleans Convention Center. Luckily, they had giant video monitors so you could see the speakers. But looking down across the scores of rows in front of me, squinting at the tiny figure reported to be Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, I noticed something far more prominent.

The otherwise dark balcony was aglow with the lit screens of cell-phones, Blackberries, and other wireless devices. It was a veritable swarm of small rectangular fireflies. Despite Ballmer's breathless oratory on Microsoft's forthcoming foray into healthcare, scores of audience members had their eyes affixed on their tiny electronic gadgets, all but oblivious to the stage.

The guy next to me fiddled with his Blackberry throughout the talk, first diligently retrieving his messages, then painstakingly "typing" in a reply, and on occasion, holding the device upright so his colleague could see whatever answer he had received. I speculated how he was messaging a colleague on the floor below, making clever comments about Ballmer's theatrics. More likely they were just planning lunch.

Ah, sweet irony. Microsoft, the great enabler of all things IT, loses the audience's attention right out of the gate, as all these adults--no teenagers here, thank you very much--were glued to their devices. These card-carrying Baby Boomers have become certified "Crackberry" addicts! But this love of technology is a true family affair, as so many Boomer offspring also have become permanently tethered to their computers, playing video games, plagiarizing term papers, or updating their MySpace profiles.

Yes, it is a universal phenomenon, one that has reached across the generational divide. Among adults, the face-to-face meeting or the one-on-one phone call has yielded to the electronic keypad. Among children, the backyard has become Siberia, as kids have abandoned traditional outdoors "play" for the merriment of instant messaging and joystick maneuvering from the cozy confines of their bedrooms.

Their so-called "addiction" to electronic devices was the subject of heated debate at the AMA meeting here in Chicago at the end of June. The AMA backed off calling excessive video game playing an addiction, but demanded further scrutiny.

"While more study is needed on the addictive potential of video games, the AMA remains concerned about the behavioral, health and societal effects of video game and Internet overuse," Dr. Ronald Davis, AMA's president, told the Chicago Tribune. "We urge parents to closely monitor children's use of video games and the Internet."

But children are not the only ones who need to be monitored. Companies too are beginning to notice the adverse affects of device over-use. GE Healthcare Financial Services put the kibosh on wireless device use during staff meetings at its Chicago office, another article in the Tribune reported. Employees had groused about colleagues who had their noses buried, not to the grindstone, but to the Blackberries during staff meetings. The very tools designed to boost productivity were in fact diminishing it. GE's theme: "Show Respect, Disconnect."Maybe HIMSS will take a page out of GE's book.

I can just see next year's keynote speech. Prior to the speaker coming to the stage, HIMSS will run will one of those trailers like you see at the movies these days exhorting people to behave properly. The risk would be, of course, that the auditorium would quickly empty out. After all, these are adults we're talking about.

Gary Baldwin is technology editor of HealthLeaders magazine. He can be reached at

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