"Always on" will start to turn off

by Dirk Knemeyer

Each day, more and more people go thru their lives with their head tilted downward and their thumb manipulating a handheld computer. This is not class-based behaviour: these expensive machines and/or the data plans that govern them are being accessed as readily by the cashier at Burger King as the corporate CEO or suburban soccer mom. The prevalence of these devices and the addictive behaviour that governs them infects people of all ages, professions, and places in society. In the process, we walk, drive, eat and talk while maintaining the familiar head tilted downward and thumb dancing feverishly that signifies our participation. Indeed, if "Seinfeld" were a modern show, we must assume there would be an episode featuring George Costanza attempting to use his personal computing device while "pleasuring" his befuddled girlfriend-of-the-moment.

This "always on" use of our handheld computers occurs in parallel with an increasing realization that our large and primary computers are undermining productivity and concentration. The perpetual "ding" of new email, new Twitter posts, and Facebook notifications is chopping up our workdays into a distracted, unfocused, chaotic mess. More articles, processes and even coaches are engaging us and attempting to find the proper balance between making the most of the marvelous technology while avoiding a tumble into the attention-sucking abyss. The early adopters of the connected technologies are already well into employing corrective behaviours, while these mitigating efforts are more slowly spreading to others.

At the same time, governments are attempting to regulate the use of handheld computers in dangerous situations, particularly while driving. Increasingly, states are making the use of handheld computers while behind the wheel illegal. At some point issues of sanitation will be addressed as well: I was somewhat horrified today to see the person preparing my food alternately put my order together while using his smartphone. Of course the social experience was somewhat horrifying as well, as all four employees at this tiny restaurant at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport were frantically using their devices. The cashier entered my order with one hand while looking at her device and tapping in messages with the other! Call me old-fashioned, but it made me feel pretty much irrelevant for these "service professionals" to be focused on far-flung people as opposed to me, their customer, three feet away from them. What, exactly, are we paying them for?

There is a hue-and-cry that this situation is only going to get progressively worse, not better. I think this analysis is wrong-minded. As we are learning how destructive "always on" computing is to our performance and productivity in the workplace, so are we learning that being disconnected from our physical environments in service of our handheld bits and bytes has deleterious impacts on our quality of life. Far beyond the obvious "if you text and drive, you will eventually crash", we are learning about impacts on our personal psychology and broader society. Never being present for the people we interact with not only promotes potentially sociopathic mindsets and behaviours, it makes the quality of our lives worse.

I suspect the evolution of the use of these devices will come to resemble the presence of other addictive and potentially damaging cultural forces like alcohol consumption and cigarette smoking. Over time, these highly addictive and immediately gratifying behaviours have decreased. It took time, education and awareness for this to happen. They persist in certain segments of society - particularly among the poor and poorly educated - but the average person has struck a balance with the object in their lives. A beer or glass of wine becomes the routine, but drinking too much is reduced to being only a periodic behaviour or being symptomatic of the culturally excluded. These devices are a part of our lives and, over time, will find their proper level. As such they will better service us as opposed to the current trend where it increasingly seems that it is we which are in service of them.

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