September 22, 2011

Digital Skills: a Thumbing-Down of Job Performance?


DOUBLY DIGITAL/Photo: Michael Moffa

When you hire candidates, of course you are aware of their sets of digital skills. But are you also aware of the hidden price their employer may have to pay for that competence?

The modern office employee and employee-to-be is expected to have various digital skills, which is usually taken to mean competence with the digital technology that has created, shaped and facilitated carrying out jobs—a digital analogue of the flamboyant pizza maker who twirls, tosses and shapes the dough you will carry out in a box, like the job tasks you will carry out and the phone you will always carry with you, like a group pacemaker.

But these skills are conspicuously digital in the second sense of that term: dependent upon the use of our fingers, with a disproportionate emphasis on our thumbs. What is abundantly clear is that this dual dependence on thumbs and digital technology is displacing and impeding more traditional forms of professional, as well as personal, employee communications performance and priorities, including your own. This hamstringing of job performance is, as will be argued below, the result of not only employee unauthorized personal use of digital devices, but also an unexpected consequence of professional company-authorized use.

At the forefront of this doubly digital development, texting has, from its debut, stood out like a soaring thumb.

The Case against Unauthorized Workplace Texting

With the impact of obsessive, surreptitious unauthorized texting on employee professional performance being obvious, one would imagine that a case against egregious unauthorized personal texting would be a slam-dunk. In 2002, a Naples court decided in favor of Telecom Italia’s dismissal of an employee, publicly identified as Carlo T., who, in 2000, had sent 12,000 personal text messages (at a cost of approximately $2,000) from his work phone over a period of just ten months (a verdict reversed by the Italian Supreme Court in 2008, on the grounds that other employees were not penalized as severely for similar infractions).

It’s only speculation, but being romantics at heart, perhaps Italians may be more likely than others to forgive a Romeo for blitzing a Juliet with countless on-the-job text missives, if he had to work in the first place.

In any case and in most workplaces, corporate logic will generally trump personal sentiment and forcefully suggest that personal texting supplants rather than supplements work.

Less obvious are the employee general human costs and the workplace performance costs incurred by authorized texting.

The Case against Texting, in General

There is a kind of general Darwinian argument against out-of-control texting: In its most extreme form, the argument is that, extrapolating from the evidence of this doubly Digital Age, the human species seems to experiencing not only a technological revolution, but a biological devolution. Barring any technological revolution that will put an end to the current extreme reliance on our thumbs and key pads, humans may indeed, over a relatively short historical period, (d)evolve into “mitten mutants”—all palms and thumbs. This would be tantamount to what may one day come to be called “The Digital Revolution-Devolution”. In this respect, thumb-based texting represents a “thumbing-down” of the human brain and mind, to the extent that the severely limited content and length of text messages contribute to an atrophy of cognitive performance that can and will have adverse repercussions for professional and personal performance.

You say, “Evolution can’t work that fast; it takes millions of years for behavior to modify genes and the brain.” Not true. Recently, scientists were astonished to discover that a mutant gene that has allowed Tibetans to adapt to the thin atmosphere of Mt. Everest-like elevations and be protected from hypoxia took only about 3,000 years to appear and broadly establish itself in the population—at the level of the genes that control “genotype” and as an example of how quickly intense evolutionary “selection pressure” can change us.

As far as much shorter-term dramatic and adverse changes in the brain caused by dumbing-down behavior, citation of the structural and functional impact of cocaine, heroin, crystal meth and ecstasy on the brain need merely be mentioned.

If it is argued that thumb-texting doesn’t constitute everything we do with our hands and brains, and that therefore, in virtue of having so many other activities in our daily lives, we are unlikely to experience any devolution of our capacities, it can be replied, that just because we do other things with our noses, it doesn’t follow that snorting cocaine will have no lasting and damaging impact on our performance range and capabilities.

As an interesting afterthought, it can be argued that texting may, in the longish term, serve as an evolutionary corrective to soccer in its utilization of dexterous thumbs rather than rigid, limited toes.  On the other hand, like soccer, which suppresses the use of our advanced primate opposable thumbs, texting represents an artificial limitation on the use of another of the most defining human structures, namely, the brain.

The Case against Authorized Professional Texting and Texters

One recruitment problem with this rampant “thumbing-down” of the mind is that in addition to whatever candidate cognitive impairment is inflicted by the shortening of attention spans in texting; by the intellectual minimalist (non-)content thumb texting generates; by the displacement of virtually all other brain activity by texting; by the reduction of logical commentary, insight and analysis to “!”, “?” and “LOL”; by amputation of all complex thought, refitted with prosthetic gibberish and by the elimination of the rich cues and context of direct, face-to-face primate communication,  the thumbing-down is very likely to adversely impact SIQ—“social IQ”, for want of a better term. Work still hugely depends upon social interaction—interaction facilitated by innumerable face-to-face, in-person cues and clues. The simplest logic makes it clear that the more time you spend communicating with others at a distance, the less cue-and-clue experience and practice a job candidate, an employee and you will have, at the cost of valuable information germane to decision-and-deal making. Less experience and practice=less skill.

In vetting candidates in person, an alert recruiter may want to pass a remark about texting in order to glean some information about just how dependent the applicant is on thinking on his thumbs, as well as how quick he is on his feet. This can be accomplished by saying something like “We’ll be in touch very soon…but not by text messaging, since I’m ‘all thumbs’, so to speak. I suppose with more practice I’ll get the hang of it. What about you? Do you do much texting?” My hunch—which is just that, only a hunch—is that text messaging is much less likely to be a favorite of or heavily used by those who (must) rely on complex, lengthy verbal communication, visible behavioral cues in professional interaction, deeply analytical thinking, sustained logic and high standards of grammar and syntax. Virtually everyone I know who is like that hates texting. As for me, I’m a writer, so, of course I hate it.

Hence, if a job requires most of the cognitive and social skills and predilections just listed, as well as other, multifarious “people skills”, e.g., customer service or prospective-client qualifying, you may want to pay close attention to degree to which and the ways that texting plays a role in the candidate’s life—personal and professional. It’s only a hunch—but one worth testing.

In particular, you may want to talk about texting with the likes of one Andrew Acklin, should a candidate like him ever make it to an interview with you:  “Ohio native Andrew Acklin is credited with the world record for most text messages sent or received in a single month, with 200,052. His accomplishments were first in the World Records Academy and later followed up by Ripley’s Believe It Or Not 2010: Seeing Is Believing. He has been acknowledged by The Universal Records Database for the most text messages in a single month. (Wikipedia, “Text Messaging”)

You may also want to hire him on the spot, or at least clone him—for being the mutant whose descendants or perfect copies will advance thumbs to a level of evolutionary prominence that foot-fixated soccer has denied them.

Read more in Performance Appraisal

Michael Moffa, writer for, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).