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A technological distraction syndrome: new deafness
In the present acoustical scenario of redundancy and dispersion of endless sound stimulations, the possibility of a link emerges which I have already defined as “The Third Mechanical Voice”, that is expressed through amplified sounds that envelope society and produces mental blurring. This causes both road accidents and those within domestic spaces, slowing down learning in schools and reducing productivity in the work place, giving rise to widespread patterns of absenteeism and individual apathy.
There exists a factor common to most cases of this form of deafness, deriving on the average from many of its causes and is the result of a global rise in the basic listening level. It is known as acoustical environmental pathology, or in other words discomfort that arises from external mechanisms and afflicts the individual independently of his will. This new form of deafness is not the result of deterioration of the acoustical cells, but is due to the overloading of space through sounds that damage the organism, interfering with thought processes and actions. This discomfort is not transmitted through contamination passed from one individual to another.
The third mechanical voice, prevailing over thought and dialogues, imposes itself as the dominant noise. People adjust to this new model, translating the effects into a mix of raised voices and confused conversations. This new form of deafness creates a series of disturbances in social relationships and disjointedness, between persons sharing the same space, with symptoms that not only have an effect on hearing: we are able to spazialise because of our sight and hearing. It is not by chance that the person affected with total physiological deafness is able to drive a vehicle using the mirror on his right, and also through his sight he can read a person's lips and gestures. Likewise, the blind person recognizes space through his own visualization which derives from his experience of reconstructing his surroundings through his hearing. However this process of compensation between the two senses does not take place when deafness is caused by distraction, since this acts on both of these senses and their specific functions.
Total physiological deafness results in a reduction in perception of the dimension of the space in front of the person, while being unable to control what happens behind creates disorientation and a sense of agitation. Thus, this limitation involves the individual who is not enveloped in the silence around him but is concentrating on what he is listening to in his head-set: the typical case is the course of the cyclist who zigzags or who zooms ahead without caring about anything around him. The same applies to the pedestrian who zigzags and runs into other people: neither type hears nor is aware of the space around him in its totality.
A state of disorientation and uncertain movements partially affects every individual who suffers from this new form of deafness, with distraction caused by technology and confusion induced by overhead amplified sound in a disorderly combination of movements in which each feels alone, deaf with respect to the others and to his environment. This occurs due to a self-strengthening trend involving deafness induced through loud-speaking systems in contrast to auto-induced devices directly applied to the ear and able to contain a huge amount of music and information that are heard at high volume. This state of self-induced isolation is the beginning of widespread total deafness due to listening devices which in time will be directly imbedded in the body, in an ever more impersonal, robotic communication system.
The level of inattention through the use of technology while in transit situations (e.g. individuals who telephone while driving) and under the previous effects of overexposure to loud sounds (drivers inattentive after long periods in a deafening environment) witness technological distraction, with cause and effect links that do not emerge in appropriate data on road accidents. In my last essay “The New Form of Deafness”, I proposed an index of hypothetical technological distractions in an attempt to identify the type of accidents that can be traced back to a state of inattention induced by audio technology: this state can be verified especially when the driver is faced either with traffic lights, vehicles or pedestrians who show up unexpectedly, or there are interruptions for roadwork underway or low visibility and in all those situations in which mental conflict is created between the repetitive gesture that induces the driver to dedicate part of his attention to the technology that is engaging him and to satellite indications: even the road he often travels is never really the same.
According to surveys reported in my essay, in Italy between 2002 and 2006 the increase in a certain type of car accident can be traced to a lack of concentration on the driver's surroundings and the deafness of the person who is unable to hear because he is listening to something else: this increase shows up even when, on the whole, the number of accidents decrease. It should be kept in mind that during the same period of around 2005, there has been an intensification of mobile technology and the application of audio equipment in shared spaces (stations, etc.). Moreover, data shows a significant increase in accidents involving pedestrians between 2002 and 2003 (iPod was launched on the market in 2001).
While personal thoughts are able to distract the individual without impeding him in perceiving external stimulations, distraction caused by technology acts on his visual ability, impeding hearing external stimuli: herein lies the main distinction between normal distraction and that of technology. The latter arises from a third indirect artificially produced damage, unfamiliar to the individual, that is expressed through the distorted voice of the radio, telephone or satellite and covers every other natural sound around the driver like peoples' steps, the presence of cyclists and a series of stimuli which in the present acoustical context are ever more often ignored.
In particular, telephone communications imply a significant emotional involvement. The driver, who is on the phone, tends not to maintain the correct distance from the other vehicles, to slow down and speed up unexpectedly, creating chain reactions of uncertainty, and thus the slowing down of traffic. The reaction time required does not increase only because of the movement of picking up the phone as there is, besides, the person on the other end of the line who attracts his attention and affects the swiftness of his reactions through his physical absence. The real context passes easily into second place even if the driver tries to equally distribute his attention and in spite of using the “live voice” which allows him to keep both hands on the steering wheel.

The reaction time of driver's on the phone, is on the average 50% slower than that of those driving under normal conditions, while those speaking into a hand-held cell phone find it difficult to maintain a constant speed. They tend to not respect the correct distance from other vehicles and take half a second more to react than they do under normal conditions: summing up, going at a speed of 110 km an hour, it takes 14 metres more to stop! Using “live voice” and mono-ear devices, if allowed, does not eliminate the risk at all; the reaction time in any case is decidedly higher than that in normal conditions and the distance required for stopping, in respect to the 31 metres based on surveys under normal conditions, is in fact, 39 metres when a cell phone is being used but the hands are free. (source: directline)

It is different when he is speaking with the person sitting next to him; in this case, control of the road is re-enforced by the presence of the other person.
There are multiple reasons why the mind can be distracted from the real context: from personal problems that are worrying the brain, to the taking of substances that limit its functioning. Even if drivers who are on the phone are more numerous than those who drive in a state of inebriation, technological distractions in most cases remain an implicit legal fact. In almost all the countries round the world, the use of audio-interactive technology is allowed while driving, on condition that it is on “live voice” or a mono ear-phone device. The cyclist is allowed the ear phone for calling and the pedestrian all types of audio technology. As a consequence, this behavior is not deemed illegal, at least as long as it is not established that it causes accidents and then forbidden, it being understood that once listening to music at high volume while driving is not allowed, the number of car accidents caused by speeding (which is already against the law) would also decrease: that such high volume creates anxiety and thus speeding, has been demonstrated by the fact that it is used in a marketing strategy adopted for most fast foods.
Distraction on the road continues to be treated as an incidental factor when it is not the result of drug or alcohol abuse or a particular psycho-physical state: the importance of communication technology (apart from the fact of being used for political maneuvering and the subsequent effects of gradual overloading that accumulates with time), has not yet been fully taken into consideration.
Perhaps it is time to think about the risks of audio technology as well as incorrect driving behavior. The first step to take in facing these risks and improving the quality of life could be changing this distraction from an innocent, legally permitted one to an unauthorized voluntary one, on the same level as alcohol abuse and excessive speed, against which there are at least precise laws.

Further readings (in Italian)

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