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  • Ben

Who's the master?

Updated: May 11, 2020

The second half of this two-parter considers the role of divergent thinking and intentionality in our ever-changing relationship with technology.

How serious are we about employee wellbeing, team dynamics, and culture?  Or being productive? If we are genuinely serious, how is everyone being chained to a screen 24/7 helping? 

Technology is a wonderful servant, but without new approaches it simply adds a further layer of disruption to operations, rather than transforming them. The way we design work and spaces in the digital age requires not just a critical eye, but holistic problem solving too. The reality leaders face is that the cognitive and social capabilities required to thrive in the future, won’t be developed by staring at a screen in a stark-windowless-bunker.

Screen-based-technologies can also be addictive - undermining our attention span and emotional needs.  Devices can impact our health, relationships and productivity.  Let’s face it, some people and some jobs are more suited to digital environments than others, but we are stuck in this all-or-nothing mindset.

We have forgotten that humans are both complex and social, understanding each other through non-verbal expression, humour, and emotion. Somehow we have forgot this and prioritised unstructured, digital interactions over meaningful conversations, and in doing so we have exposed people to states of isolation, depression and burn-out.

The average office worker receives 121 emails a day and sends out 40, according to research carried out by Radicati Group.  The upshot of this is employees work a second shift – catching up at night having falling behind during the day due to endless interruptions.

Blackberry launched the 5810 in 2002 and with it the ability to answer emails on-the-move.  At this time, the average worker received and sent around 20 emails, a far cry from where we are today. Initially greeted with excitement, the innovation offered us a feeling of liberation, but like the frog analogy, we have slowly boiled.

The advent of email, instant messaging, real-time collaboration platforms and mobile devices is eroding our ability to focus without distraction.  With poor productivity lurking in the background this is not a sustainable trend and it begs the question; how many apps do we need to replace conversation?

Personal and business value is created from Deep Work, a term which the author Cal Newport describes “as the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task”.  One of the most valuable skills in our economy is rapidly diminishing due to our pervasive use of screens.

Our daily use of screens accounts for over 10 hours of our day, with mobile usage increasing 90% year on year since 2011. It would seem crazy to encourage people to smoke more, so why are we guilt-free when it comes to the promotion of unrestrained screen time?

Technostress is a label used by Microsoft to describe the collateral damage to people who constantly interact with screens, emails and social media.

Impacts our health - overuse of technology leads to a heightened risk of anxiety, stress and depression whilst also damaging our physical health, with raised blood pressure and spinal issues.  Screens also harm our eyesight and the blue light we absorb from them is contributing to our nation’s sleep deprivation epidemic.

Harms our relationships - we are the most connected, and at the same time more isolated, than ever before.  Meaningful relationships at home, in the workplace or with our friends are created through analogue and present conversations. Emotional intelligence and the forming of bonds does not happen by staring at screens.

Reduces our productivity - working in a state of burnout is clearly not productive.  Generating ideas, intelligent decision-making, Deep Work, or creativity, these things happen away from screens and where today we spend so little of our time.

People and machines flourishing side-by-side

“Old robots are becoming more human and young humans are becoming more like robots.”

Lorin Morgan-Richards, The Goodbye Family Unveiled

Digital technologies are similar to others that came before - created with good intentions - but undermined by errant commercial models, and our compulsive nature.

In an era of heightened distraction we have confused technological progress with humanity’s.  Our future depends on uncertain and complex-interacting-forces but at the heart of it we must optimise our ability to accurately process information, make intelligent decisions, and generate ideas to solve humanity’s most pressing problems.

Communication enables these ideas to take off and in doing so bring others on the journey with us.  However, we must appreciate digital interactions aren’t conversations, and adapt accordingly because we are eroding the trust and bonds that glue teams, friendships and communities together.  Our social circuitry is under-fire from a bombardment of emails, nudges and beeps - if we want to undo this damage – we must rethink how we work, live, and interact with one another going forward.

Machines need processes, data, and rules - people need purpose, compassion, and solidarity – it's imperative we deploy technology with both in mind.   Full steam ahead with alluring-and-gamified-technology is not the answer for everyone. For many, how we design technology to free us from manual intervention is key.  Personalisation matters, and the goal of technology should be to make each of our lives better - AI and Automation are no different.

Now is the time to get this relationship back on track.

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