The flip-side of Techno-productivity

By : Jim Pinto,
San Diego, CA.
USA

Technology has changed the dynamics of how we communicate, live and even think. It's made our lives easier in many ways. But it's also causing deeper problems, causing stress and anxiety for many people, new disabilities and new realms of social misbehavior.

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Automation.com, December 2007

Technology has changed the dynamics of how we communicate, live and even think. It's made our lives easier in many ways. But it's also causing deeper problems, causing stress and anxiety for many people, new disabilities and new realms of social misbehavior.

Technology Options

These days there are too many technology options - email, text messaging, wireless PDAs, Wi-fi & WiMax, cell phones with hands-free blue-tooth - and more are coming.

We buy technology to do things cheaper, faster, better. It helps us to connect anywhere and anytime, prevents phone tag, sorts and recalls huge amounts of information, simplifies writing (checks grammar and spelling), and even allows us to work remotely. But the speed and availability cause problems, because of increased expectations. We get lost, browsing and sinking down one rabbit hole after another and never quite focusing on where we are and what we're doing. There are more and more demands on our attention.

Need for speed

Today, we do more. Faster. From anywhere. All the time. You can work at home or the coffee shop or the beach. It's touted as a good thing, but it's having bad effects. Life is allowed to be the sum of endless tasks. The short term is always the priority.

But speed and availability cause problems. We get lost, never quite focusing on any specific thing. We are so connected that we actually disconnect from life. No one has enough time to focus long enough on anything. You can't mull over a question that requires a long, complicated answer. The person who brings up a quick answer is treated as the hero.

The need for speed is shrinking our attention spans. We look for quick answers. We make and accept deadlines that may be impossible. We start tasks that are never quite finished. This has changed the dynamics of how we live, communicate, and think. It's made our lives easier. But it's also causing deeper problems.

Time Poverty

There is no question about it - many of us are too busy, and keep running out of time. We run from appointment to appointment, switch from one phone-call to another. We take work home, and cram leisure time into short bursts of stress filled moments. We end up treating even our own families and children as yet more tasks that must be completed quickly and effectively.

The question is, how did we did get into this predicament? It certainly isn't because we are less efficient. In the past 25 years, economists estimate that productivity has increased by 70% or more. We have overnight delivery, cell phones, fast food, and instant messaging. Shouldn't our ability to get more work done give us more time? Where does all this "extra" time go?

Productivity made possible by technology has inordinately been applied to work and consumption at the expense of leisure. The result is that we are compromising our health, marriages, parenthood, community and social activism. We are working faster and longer, filling our limited leisure with busy activities, with an increasing sense of time poverty. The new technologies have become a technological leash, leaving us always on call and constantly subject to interruptions and new work requirements.

Competition on a global level is fierce. Your job, and your company's bottom line, depends on your doing more, better, cheaper, faster. You get used to being always available and alert. It's hard to stop.

Some people have made choices, leaving salaries and insurance plans and new car payments for a pace that best suits them. But the choices get tougher if you have kids in college, aging parents to help, or a disease that requires expensive medical care. You try to do more to earn more, and you end up on an accelerating treadmill. It's hard to not check your email or voice mail when it's so easy to do.

Multi-tasking

If you have deadlines, job uncertainty, a do-more-with-less workplace, a dual-income family with kids, then you multitask. Multitasking - doing many things at once - has become part of our daily lives. It is consistently counter productive, is often unhealthy and could even be dangerous (e.g.: talking on the cell phone while driving; or even worse, text-messaging). And yet it is expected, encouraged and, for many, has become essential for success.

Multitasking has become a way of life. The average person at work switches tasks every three minutes, is interrupted every two minutes, and has a maximum focus stretch of 12 minutes. We multitask because it's expected; but also because we believe it's more effective. The truth is that no one multitasks well. It works if the tasks are simple and virtually automatic (like walking and chewing gum at the same time). But effective, efficient multitasking is difficult and the quality of each task degrades, often causing imbalance and errors.

Some people have become multi-tasking junkies. While someone is talking with them they continue to scan for email, and check their cell-phone for messages. It's rude. When there's a lull in a meeting, they check email; who knows, there may be something that needs urgent attention (most often it's only spam). They get obsessed, checking e-mails while on vacation or late at night. They send e-mail to people at the office who are just a few steps away and get annoyed when the response is not prompt. They fire off text-messages, or use their cell phone - not because they have something to say, but just as a reflex. They're the junkies.

You don't even need a computer to overload with multi-tasking. Watch any TV news channel - you'll get an image of the speaker, with another image of a related event that is being discussed, with unrelated news scrolled along the bottom of the screen, and sometimes another tidbit sandwiched in somewhere, plus logos and slogans coming in at the corners of the screen. You'll get two opposing speakers, screaming at one another and settling nothing. The TV channel is giving you as much information as possible for fear that you'll click away to another channel. The result is a confused cacophony of communication.

New types of Disorders

The compulsion to stay connected has sprouted a number of terms, like "online compulsive disorder" and "data smog" and "pseudo-attention deficit disorder" - shorter attention spans influenced by technology and the constant waves of information washing over us. When the brain gets excited over some rapid data and is stimulated, it releases a "dopamine squirt".

Closely related to multi-tasking is "task-switching". Constant switching from one task to another slows a person; dumbs them down. Also, it is fatiguing and even harmful in terms of long-term health. When you switch from one task to another and back again, you are pushing mental 'pause' and 'play' buttons. The brain assesses tasks, ranks importance and decides what comes when. But what to do next isn't always your decision, since other priorities impinge. Your brain gets confused and looks for default mechanisms. It's hard to focus. You take shortcuts.

This is of particular interest when it comes to children who have grown up in the fast lane where Web pages that take more than five seconds to load are considered lame. Is the speed and ease compromising their attention spans? Their perspective? Their humanity? Even their work ethic? They don't read a book to do an essay - simply searching Google for summaries and articles to plagiarize. Little is understood about the Information Age's effect on the new generation.

Staying connected

You know, even when you go on vacation, you're not "off the hook". As I write this I'm visiting family in Bangalore, India. I have a broadband Internet connection and Skype on my laptop, which allows me to talk for free with other Skype users anywhere in the world. And I can use Skype-out to call back to anywhere in the U.S. and Canada for about 2 cents a minute. My U.S. cell phone can receive calls in India, but to avoid the high cost of international roaming, I've got a local Bangalore cell phone, and my Skype-in number forwards to my cell phone.

There's an interesting twist to this Internet calling. Some Indian companies who do business in the U.S. have Vonage telephones ($29.95 a month) registered with U.S. area-codes, physically located in India. When a N. American client dials the U.S number, the person at the other end of the line is talking from India. Of course, the time-difference (13 1/2 hours) remains, so that when the client is calling during normal business hours, it's the middle of the night for the person who answers the phone in India.

I considered bringing my own Vonage telephone with me to India, to stay connected. But, I hate the real-time interruptions - imagine answering a San Diego, California telemarketing call in the middle of the night while Iím asleep in Bangalore. Of course, I'm still connected - via email. When I finish this article, I'll simply click it away to Rick Zabel at Automation.com in Minnesota - and that's free!

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