I saw something terrifying the other day. I was walking home from work. There was a construction crew near my house. They were ripping up the road with a large machine. The machine lurched as it worked. Right behind it, seemingly oblivious, stood a construction worker staring at his smartphone.
And it’s not the first time I’ve seen something like this. Beside my office a crew is building a massive apartment. I walked by once as trucks came and went from a driveway. A worker stood guard to watch for pedestrians. He, too, stared at his smartphone.
Anyone with such a device (which is billions of people) knows their allure. So this part isn’t surprising. Many of us also know how their constant distraction undermines our work performance. But not all us have jobs where such distraction has a direct impact on safety. Smartphone use in construction and healthcare can be deadly.
But even that is known. People are studying it. And trying to solve it. What I want to highlight here instead is how such distraction affects workmanship and service.
For the former, perhaps I’m just getting more cynical or observant. But I see a lot of silly mistakes in newer buildings. We’re staying this weekend in a new building at a resort, for example. One of the cupboard doors opens directly into a wall lamp. And the safe in the closet can’t open fully because the safe door smashes into the closet doorframe. There may be other reasons for these design flaws. But I can’t help wondering if the carpenters were checking their messages while completing the installations.
At the same resort, the service also suffers at least in part from smartphone distraction. For example, there’s been an empty beer bottle lying in the grass by the main lobby for days. I see staff walk by it, sometimes on their smartphone. I’m certain that if more were paying attention, someone would have seen it and removed it. (And yes, I’m guilty too. I normally would have picked it up or told someone, but in this case I was curious to see whether staff would eventually do it unprompted.)
All of this said, I don’t blame the victims. Many smartphone apps are addictive by design. Our attention is an economic asset that companies like Facebook cultivate, harvest, and sell. But 12 years into the smartphone experiment, the impact is starting to show. Shoddy workmanship and shitty service are an example. And, oh yeah, we might also want to think about safety.