Croal: We Can't Stop Fidgeting with Smart Phones

Aristotle said that nature abhors a vacuum. He wasn't talking about my day-to-day life when he made that statement, but lately it's become very applicable. In the morning I've barely left my Brooklyn apartment before I'm taking out my BlackBerry to check my e-mail. Waiting for the bus? Out it comes again to scan the latest entertainment and sports news, or accept Facebook requests. Those two minutes of daylight as my subway crosses the Manhattan Bridge before entering the tunnels on the other side? It used to be another two minutes that I'd spend catching up on my sleep debt. Now I spend it looking at my Twitter feed, and, if inspiration strikes, I'll send out a bon mot of my own … which means that as soon as I exit the subway station by my office, I have to fire up TwitterBerry one more time to see who was amused by my witticisms.

If this sounds like compulsive behavior, well, that's because it's starting to feel compulsive. What I'm describing is not multitasking—the kind you do at your desk as you toggle between e-mail, IM and Web pages, driving down productivity—but rather a new form of mobile perpetual-tasking, where moments of spare time are steadily filled in by constant communication.

It's a phenomenon that's due partly to changes in hardware. The first generation of portable devices were separate, single-function machines: day planners, mobile phones, Game Boys. Work was work, play was play, talk was talk, and the trio rarely intertwined. But as these gadgets have gotten smarter and more connected, on-the-go communication and entertainment have merged; now there's an entire suite of social applications that are available both at our desks and anywhere there's a Wi-Fi connection or a cellular tower. The result is a near-seamless digital persona that spans multiple devices, bypassing corporate firewalls and supervisors' watchful eyes with the greatest of ease.

Thanks to these gadgets, we can be our work selves and our private selves and our semipublic selves anywhere, any time. So we do, and until someone or something comes along and forces us to take stock of our behavior—like a friend who was bothered by my repeated checking of basketball scores during a group dinner—we keep rolling along.

As much as I'd like to claim it was my friend's justified pique that made me stop and think about the inordinate time I spend staring into tiny screens, it was actually another gadget that did the trick. My PDA died a couple of weeks ago, and I've yet to replace it. I used my PDA to write during my morning and evening commutes—outline a NEWSWEEK article, edit a blog post, jot down an idea for a screenplay. Because I was doing work rather than killing time, it felt productive. In contrast, much of what I now do with my BlackBerry feels less virtuous.

But truth be told, even the work I did on my PDA was a way of filling the void with some form of electronic activity. So now that my mobile workstation of choice has given up the ghost, I've become more sensitive to my reflexive digital behavior—and I've begun to see it everywhere. I see it in colleagues on the elevator to the woman on the train whom I observed reading a book while holding a BlackBerry in the same hand that was cradling the front cover. I kept waiting for her to check it, but she never did, yet it remained in her hand during the entire ride. As ridiculous as it sounds, these devices have become the adult equivalent of security blankets, pacifying us with familiar apps and rhythms of dialogue as we mark time between work and home.

Tonight as I get ready to leave the office and board the subway, I'm set to take my maiden voyage into the world of the new 3G iPhone. I suspect it will become part of my problem rather than a solution.