Smarter phones ... dumber people?

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I love my smartphone. It tells me what to do and when to do it. It reminds me of appointments. It rings, vibrates or beeps when someone from afar posts a Facebook message, texts me, e-mails me at any of three addresses, updates a LinkedIn discussion, leaves a voice mail or generally has a need to communicate with me. My smartphone’s QR code reader helps me shop efficiently without waiting for a store employee. My smartphone delivers the news and weather, and puts the Internet in my palm. It also provides entertainment when I am bored. It keeps me intimately connected to my business, my family and my friends via a single, handheld point of mass communication. Does it help prioritize what’s important? Well, no — it’s a firehose of accessibility and data acquisition happening in real time. The more I look at it, the more I lose sight of the horizon.

I dubbed 2011’s Dealer Expo the “Year of the PDA.” There was a plethora of Bluetooth devices, texters and Internet-surfing PDA-types walking around looking at everything — except what was right in front of them. I witnessed several collisions between walking texters, after which I caught myself stepping aside from the traffic flow to text a note back to the office. Soon I learned there were even streaming videos of Dealer Expo to watch. YouTube posts of new products began popping up before my eyes on a 3-inch screen. Partners in business texted with fervor about new business ideas and dinner plans. Dealernews posted a series of news announcements. Voice mails queued up while my ringer was on “vibrate” during meetings. Blog-meisters were actively posting comments on everything from industry scuttlebutt to Nostradamus’ powersports predictions. All of it was streaming to my smartphone — every 10 seconds. Arrgh!

Expo attendees were well-briefed with Dealer Expo public address announcements, Dealernews Show Daily print magazines and Dealernews e-Alerts coming from the active media center. Manufacturers e-blasted their new-product messages to Facebook. Video production crews streamed videos to YouTube. Twitter tweeted everything from “Stop the Youth ATV Lead Ban” to “Shrimp cocktails extra hot at St. Elmo’s.” This “firehose” of data and information blasting my handheld device almost took me out of the reason I was here — to network with people. Technology is awesome and facilitates business in many ways, but our industry isn’t necessarily defined by its products. It’s defined by its people, the people who make, distribute, sell and use those products. A trade show, an open house, a race or rally event is designed to bring those people together — to use an old-fashioned smile, handshake and eye contact once in a while.

I could have almost stayed home in the office and watched the show from afar from my smartphone. The news comes to me now, and I don’t have to go outside my cocoon to find it anymore. Is this why dealer attendance felt lower at Indy this year? Perhaps. The trade show is broadcast electronically and digitally better than ever in the past. You can see it and read about it, but you can’t “feel it” if you’re not there. You wouldn’t feel the excitement of watching the new 3D Go-Pro with 3D glasses on. You wouldn’t feel the eerie emptiness of the Chinese Pavilion. You wouldn’t feel the motivation from guest speaker Larry Winget, author of “Shut Up! Stop Whining and Get a Life!” You would miss the sight of old friends or associates, and the haphazard meeting of new ones.

The more we look at life through a computer or smartphone screen, the more we will lose sight of the horizon. Survivors — fighter pilots, racers and business owners — must be aware of what’s around them at all times. Don’t overlook the big picture simply because the tiny screen in front of you is buzzing. Like a fish to a lure, the smaller, shiny, more-immediate baubles distract us from the larger, important goals in life and business. Remember the best-selling book “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff”? What your PDA delivers to your palm is probably 90 percent small stuff — quantity over quality. Be sure your smartphone isn’t dumbing you down — and look up occasionally.

This story originally appeared in the Dealernews April 2011 issue.