The Unbearable Madness of Being: Technological Transformation

In the first column of this series, I identify a number of key reasons underlying our current state of overwhelmed busy-ness. First among these is the incredible tidal wave of technological transformation that has occurred in just a few short years. I first got an internet email address in about 1991, making me something of an early adopter. 1991 was also the year that saw the launch of the world wide web. If you wanted to look at a web site then, you needed to know the address; Yahoo! was three years away, and Google search wouldn’t appear for another seven. High-speed was anything more than 9600-baud dialup over the phone line (you may need to Google what that actually means).

Today, there are 7.1 billion internet users world-wide and 3.9 billion email accounts. It’s relatively safe to say that the internet has become a ‘thing’. Technology rules our lives. The internet is in our pockets, our computers, our games, our DVD players, our thermostats and, most recently, our smoke detectors.

All of this sounds awesome to some, and horrifying to others. But is it actually, objectively making our lives better? Technology was supposed to be the great equalizer. With technological advances, the philosopher Bertrand Russell mused in his 1932 essay “In Praise of Idleness” that we should all be able to get by with a four-hour work day. Nice theory, shame about the implementation.

Arguably, a large part of this problem is us. It is arguable that many of us are insanely busy because we want to be, because the number of hours or our level of busy-ness is some bizarre badge of honour by which we measure our self-worth and value. A recent study puts the average number of hours worked by executives, managers and professionals at 72-hours per week. That’s an insane number, but what is even more astonishing is that most surveyed didn’t mind.

Where that leaves us with is an ever-expanding workload, through an always-available internet, alternatively revelling in and complaining about our workloads and lack of ‘a life’. And yet, ironically, it seems that we like it that way. Why this is so seems to be a base product of human psychology. As much as we profess otherwise, we are being rewarded by our behaviour. Specifically, the quick hits that we get from tweets, Facebook posts and status updates give us hits of dopamine from our hypothalamus, a chemical reward that drives our behaviours of seeking and wanting, without actually delivering any pleasure and satiation. In other words, we constantly seek novelty and stimulation without experiencing any level of reward and satisfaction with what we have. This is a point driven home in a fascinating book by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang entitled The Distraction Addiction. His thesis is summed up brilliantly with the quote, “Connection is inevitable. Distraction is a choice.”

Despite our apparent best efforts, we get in the way of ourselves over and over again. We know that we feel most meaningful engagement and satisfaction when we are engaged in a difficult task that stretches our abilities to succeed, while not being so hard that we must inevitably fail. Creativity and innovate require time to think and contemplate, and yet we distract ourselves from doing so with technology. The ubiquitous availability of information is quite literally reshaping our brains, seriously compromising our ability to focus and concentrate. And yet, rather than allowing time to think, reflect, let our minds wander and become curious and—yes—bored, we distract ourselves with our smartphones. Technology, which theoretically is designed to help us do our best work, is often actually preventing us from experiencing and creating the conditions where our best work can happen.

The solution to this should be relatively easy. We just have to want to take it. We need to take control and choose when, and how, we engage with the technology in our lives. Pang outlines a number of strategies, many of which will be extremely difficult for those addicted to constantly refreshing their email and twitter feeds: Minimize the number of times you check for updates. Be mindful that technology is a mediator to other real people. Step back and breathe.

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