and now, how about some good, old-fashioned technophobia?
The gospel of the web rotting our brains, as per Nicholas Carr, has really been making the rounds and the latest iteration of it is seen in IEEE Spectrum — the product of a tech VC’s regurgitation of every major trope on the topic. From the evils of multitasking to the compulsive checking of our inboxes and Facebook statues, William Davidow has been playing Pokemon with the old fogey squad’s clichés and managed to catch most of them. In fact, the only accusation I’m missing from my technophile bingo card is the appeal to our kids’ supposedly stunted attention spans due to an overdose on social media and entertainment sites even though the reason why they fidget in class and spend a lot of time on the computer is our insistence on boring them half to death rather that encouraging them to learn and experiment on their own to find what they really want to do with their lives. But the problems in applying 1950s pedagogy to the modern post-industrial world are a separate topic. Instead, let me tackle the idea that our electronics and their use are somehow dangerous.
Basically the claim from those who Davidow quotes is that a) prolonged use of electronics rewires our brains and compulsive use of the web triggers the same sort of physiological response as substance abuse, and b) electronics encourage us to multitask and we’re really bad at it so we work more, get less done, and feel more stressed and overwhelmed. We’ll get back to the first point in a moment because it’s quite debatable, but the second point really is a serious problem that does need a little attention and analysis. Overall, it’s true that humans are really bad at multitasking and we actually tend to get worse at it the more we practice it. And it’s also a fact that we’re asked to multitask more and more in life and at work and we’re overwhelmed with the results of making ourselves constantly available and stretching ourselves thin. Going even further, I’ll concede that computers and smartphones enable us to multitask more and more, and that we use them as enablers in our overload. But whereas Davidow is happy with leaving the web as the culprit in this problem, the real problem lies with us, the humans.
We don’t have to answer every phone call, check every text, update Twitter as often as we do, or spend as much time near our computers as we actually do. We choose to do it anyway and the companies that ask us to do ten things at once at work don’t realize how unproductive it makes their employees. How couldn’t they know in today’s data-driven, dashboard-infused business environment? Because they rarely if ever test what would happen if they focused on just one job at a time. Having worked in a company where the thought of turning off one’s Blackberry was considered blasphemy worthy of an inquisition by the management and spending time in others were being so busy you barely had time to breathe in was a badge of honor, I’m having a lot of trouble picturing a CEO saying that the company needs to cut down on e-mails, calls, and reshuffle employee workloads to cut down on multitasking because in today’s business orthodoxy this is the equivalent of saying that Earth is unlikely to be the only habitable world in the universe in the 1600s. The facts are on the contrarians’ side but no one wants to listen to them.
And this leads us back to the first broad point from Davidow and those in his camp. It’s not the fault of the technology for making our lives rotate around electronics and the web, but our own poor self-control. The only technical solution would be to build new phones and computers that act like nannies and tell you how much to work on at the same time, how many calls to take and when, and when you should respond to texts. I’m sure these hypothetical devices will also object to being lodged deep in the brains of the company executives who decide to force them on the public which will no doubt be furious that their electronics will now be their surrogate strict parents. A much more practical way to tackle this is to let people figure out that they’re not being more productive if they take on ten obligations at once, a concept that those busy warning us about the big dangers of technology use don’t even seem to consider. As someone who actually makes things for the technologies squarely in their sights, I trust my users to determine when enough is enough for them and I’m not going to lament the current state of affairs in the wired world as if people don’t have the willpower to put down the smartphone or step away from the computer when they’re feeling tired and overwhelmed.