Sunday, February 6, 2011

The downside of constant connection

I check my e-mail pretty frequently, from first thing in the morning until maybe 9 or 10 in the evening. (More on what "first thing" means shortly.) I have Facebook and Twitter accounts that I check a few times over the course of a day, too. I don't post a lot, just a few times a week to each; mostly I check to monitor information other people are putting out there.

However, I don't have a smart phone. I don't want a smart phone. I don't use my "dumb" cellphone all that much; a few calls and texts a week mostly to my wife and kids. (Only a few people other than family members even have the number, and it's turned off more hours of the week than it's turned on.) Without a smart device, of course, e-mails, tweets and Facebook updates can't reach me constantly. Sometimes, a few hours pass before I get them.

Does that make me a Luddite? If you took what's said in a lot of the news ricocheting around the tech world at face value, it would seem so. Being technologically up to date is equated with being constantly connected, constantly on. When Mashable posts an entry titled "31 New Digital Media Resources You May Have Missed" there's a subtle implication that unless you have all of these latest and greatest tips, tools and tricks, you're just not with it. (That post was shared 105 times on Facebook and tweeted more than 1,700 times, BTW).

But being constantly connected can take a toll, as an article from today's New York Times points out:

All of this amped-up productivity comes with a growing sense of unease. Too often, people find themselves with little time to concentrate and reflect on their work. Or to be truly present with their friends and family.

The Times writer quotes Ana Dutra, 46, a top manager at a Chicago-based executive recruiting firm, as saying that technology has afforded her more freedom, “but there’s a little bit more slavery as well ...If you are available all the time, what does that mean?”

Balance of work and life is something professionals have always struggled with, but technology has torn down some barriers permanently, in the eyes of people who study it. The Times quotes Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, as saying that "home has invaded work and work has invaded home and the boundary is likely never to be restored ... The new gadgetry has really put this issue into much clearer focus.”

The theme of the Times article is nothing new; I've seen others almost exactly like it. Perhaps it is a recurring theme because of a growing recognition of how corrosive an always-on life can be.

Being connected is important to me, which is why I check my e-mail and social networks numerous times over the course about 13 or 14 hours a day, seven days a week. But balance, and downtime, are equally important. Without them, there's no time to synthesize or think about the information flowing in. That's why it doesn't bother me that it might take a while for me to get to an e-mail or see a tweet, even about something that's interesting and important to me. Very little of it is SO urgent that a few minutes or few hours will make a difference.

And, I've even redefined "first thing" in the morning. Until a few weeks ago, that meant about 6:30 a.m., right after breakfast, when I'd pour a second cup of coffee and fire up the computer to check e-mail, Facebook, Twitter and some online news sites. But I found that spending 20 minutes or so doing that was a real impediment to getting out of the house in a timely fashion to go to the gym and get some exercise before work. So these days, when the computer gets turned off for the evening it goes into my briefcase, and the next time I'm online is when I get to the office around 8:30 or 9 the next morning. I can honestly say I haven't had to address anything since the beginning of the semester for which those two hours in the morning have made a difference.

(Granted, not all people could say that. If I were still a working journalist, I doubt I'd make such a blanket statement because in that world, these days, urgency of information delivery and dissemination is the cardinal value.)

To me, having the time to assess and think about information flowing in is crucial for understanding it and what it means. Constant connection to an endless torrent of data undermines the ability to do that.

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