I went to a lovely dinner party the other night, put together by the no-less-lovely Cathy Brooks of DoAT. At some point of the evening, we shared our thoughts on what we were seeing that qualified as “most disruptive”. Where are things going, according to the diners?
I have to admit I drew a bit of a blank in the “disruptive” department — I’m trying to quieten down these days. However, there are two things I see going on that seem important to me.
The first is that we’re outsourcing our brains. It’s an evidence — a huge amount of what computing does for us is that. The internet, mobile phones, better interfaces — all that accelerates and facilitates the process.
We don’t just use machines to outsource long complicated mathematical calculations anymore. We use them to decide where to eat. To remember what we need to do tomorrow. To know who acted in which movie. Where we met people, and when. Who they are and what they do. What we did when and where.
We’re using machines to remember stuff. Does it scare you? It doesn’t scare me that much, to be honest, because as long as that information is almost instantly available to us, does it make a big difference if it was stored in our brains or elsewhere? Have you read those SF books (like Alastair Reynolds‘s Revelation Space series — I love his stories) where humans have implants that connect them permanently to a kind of “cloud” or “network”? I mean, it’s just what we have now, with a better interface. I think we’re getting there.
We’ve been doing this with people forever. When you have a close relationship with somebody, you outsource (or delegate) some of your cognitive processes or data storage to them. I can’t remember if I read about this in Blink or The Tipping Point, but it was Malcolm Gladwell who introduced me to the idea.
In a couple, somebody is often in charge of the schedule. Or of cooking. Or of taking initiative for the holidays. Or of keeping up with movies to see. Breaking up (or losing that important other in any way) is traumatizing also because of the “data loss”. It’s a slightly utilitarian and mechanical view of relationships, of course, but it’s onto something.
The feeling of disconnect we have when away from technology (almost like a missing limb) has some kinship with the feeling of lack of access when we’re aware from our external data storage humans. “Oh, if only Andy were here, I’d just ask him X/he’d know what to do.”
Right, enough of confusing humans with machines.
The second thing that’s been on the top of my mind for the last couple of years is the question of boundaries. In an always-connected world, providing better and better interfaces with all the data out there and the spaces we store it in (machine or human), we are forced to learn boundaries. Boundaries with humans, especially when there are too many of them, and boundaries with technology.
For many of us, technology is closely linked to work, and learning to be offline is also learning to disconnect from work. Should we learn to be offline? Is it something we need? It seems obvious to us today, but I’m not sure it will be seen as that important in 10-20 years.
Do we think it’s important to spend days without electricity? Without cars (yes, but once a year)? Without cooking food? Without a roof over our head? Without newspapers or books? It’s different, you’ll say. Not that different — just that those are technologies that were born before us, and we don’t question them as much as those that appear during our adult lifetime.
Disconnecting is a radical way of avoiding the issue of having to set boundaries with technology and people. But we do not owe it to people to be available when they try to reach us. In most of our lines of work, nobody is going to die if we don’t check our e-mail. We can learn to say no, to not respond to certain requests, to not pick up the phone.
Of course we need disconnection at times. E-mail sabbaticals should become an acceptable thing in companies. For that, we need more people who have the guts to do it (responsibly of course). I found that spending a week offline helps reset normalcy. It’s easier to resist the temptation to check your e-mail first thing in the morning when you’ve spent a week without it. It’s easier to slow down when you’ve been offline for a week. I think it’s particularly useful to take these breaks when “online” and “work” are related. In a way, it just comes down to taking a “real” holiday. Just as needing time off work doesn’t mean we should aim to purge work from our lives, needing breaks from tech doesn’t mean we need to try and remove it from our lives.
I believe it is possible to remain connected and at the same time to preserve our personal space and time. Yes, that requires being able to say no, and set boundaries, but that’s simply healthy human behaviour.
Answering when addressed is etiquette that holds in a world where the physicality of space and time already sets boundaries for us — in the digital world, it needs to be rethought.
I remember this researcher who was interviewed in a Radiolab episode (probably “Deception“). He strived to not lie — you know, those social lies you say all the time. “Oh, sorry I can’t meet you for dinner next week, I’m too busy.” Instead, he would say things like (quoting from memory) “I’m sorry, but I’m not actually looking to pursue new friendships right now.” I think this kind of attitude requires courage and diplomacy. And I think that more and more, we’re going to have to learn it.
In a connected world, these social lies become more difficult. I might end up having to own up to the fact that yes, I’m there, at home, watching a DVD, available for my friends and family, but not for my clients. It’s not easy, but it’s doable.
So, I think we should go for balance, and boundaries, rather than rejection and disconnection.