“Switching Off in order to Switch On: Dealing with the Perils of the Information Age” – Dr. Brian Harney
We live in an age of immediacy, disintermediation, bite-size recommendations, tweets and status updates. The benefits of more freely available, real time information cannot be denied- be it in the service of social struggle, emergency interventions or in facilitating the constant innovation and change mandated in the corporate world. Overall, there is more information being generated and communicated in the present day than in the whole period from the dawn of history until 2003 (Harkaway 2012: 53).
Less explored, however, is the impact of this information overload on individuals and the way that they see and interact with the world. Bite-size, quickly digested information is no doubt a useful strategy snack, but it is no substitute for a diet of longer term appreciation, application and assimilation. U2’s Bono has frequently berated fans for using mobile phones to video concerts urging them “to be in the moment”. This documents a dynamic characteristic of our age where rather than living or experiencing, we are consumed by capturing and tagging. Rather than liberating us to better experience, we have become somewhat colonised by the medium. This tendency has not gone completely unnoticed. In his book The Thinking Life: How to thrive in the age of distraction Forni speaks of the importance of “striving to be in the present moment”.
But what is the relevance for business? The key message is that it may be beneficial to occasionally switch off in order to switch on. The idea is not unheard of. Indeed, even technological mammoths have introduced temporary bans on the use of e-mail and mobile communications (e.g. on the last Friday of every month or for a specific half-day every week). The result: people actually return to face to face interaction, stop e-mailing the office next to them or the secretary down the corridor, and instead actually get up to meet them in person and have a discussion. While e-mail is quick and cost efficient, the face-to-face alternative can be both refreshing and effective. While e-mail allows connection this does not necessarily equate to communication. Moreover, with a technical e-mail comes the usual bombardment of cc’s that serve no purpose other than saying ‘I’m here- notice me’, ‘I’m working late’ or are an attempt to absolve or spread responsibility.
MIT Professor Sherry Turkle uses the clever concept of ‘Alone Together’ as the title of her book on the impact and expectations of technology. She gives the example of management consultants she interviewed who claim to be making better use of the ‘downtime’ they have in airports and taxis by doing e-mail. The risk however, is that this was the time where previously “far-flung global teams solidified relationships and defined ideas” (p. 15). Face to face interactions enable an appreciation of how people are really feeling either explicitly or more implicitly as suggested by the tone of their voice or gestures. They afford an opportunity to listen, develop relationships and gain hunches about progress and new projects. The convenience of technology and the mass availability of information may serve as blind spots to such insights.
Faced with the burden of technology and information overload what tactics may be used to ‘switch-off’? The critical point is not in the specifics which vary contingent on position/industry etc., but that consideration of current practice may create an opportunity to think about your own thinking, and how it may be conditioned by the technological universe that surrounds us. Suggestions for ‘switching off’ include:
- Leaving your desk, e-mail and phone for fixed periods (coffee, lunch)
- For every ten or twenty e-mails send one where you purposefully re-insert the human- by either physically visiting the recipient or alternatively by phoning/skyping them
- Only check your e-mail at fixed periods over the course of the day
- When working on a critical project—disconnect and give it the attention it deserves
- Technology has rendered work life balance a myth- however, you can manage your work life integration by switching-off for dedicated periods when at home
- Blanket ban technology for a fixed period of time in your business and explore the consequences
Some have already taken to ‘switching off’ on a broader scale. Danah Boyd, Senior Researcher at Microsoft, declares a ‘technological sabbatical’ where she turns off all means of electronic communication for a period of two weeks in order to refresh and recharge. Perhaps we could also learn from those in the creative space who have duly recognized the danger of succumbing to the technological charge in allowing what is new and uncharted to become unchallenged and conventional. Designer Stefan Sagmeister, for example, completely closes down his New York studio once every seven years to undergo a yearlong sabbatical in order to rejuvenate and refresh his creative outlook. Confronted with a technological onslaught and information overload we could all perhaps benefit from tactics and mini-sabbaticals which might see us being more present in the moment. The argument is not a Luddite one, but comes from the recognition that “deep thinking is often the illustrious casualty in the digital revolution” (Forni 2011: 3). Every now and then it may be wise to switch off in order to switch on. Indeed, it may result in you becoming more connected.
Brian Harney is a Lecturer in Strategy and HRM at DCU Business School and Deputy Director (Knowledge) of the LInK research centre
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Harkaway, N. 2012. The Blind Giant: Being human in the digital world. London: John Murray Press.
Harney, B. 2010. ‘Using Technology to connect’, Letters to the Editor, Irish Times. 23rd of August 2010
Forni, P. M. 2011. The Thinking Life: How to thrive in the age of distraction New York: St Martin’s Press.
Turkle, S. 2011. Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. New York: Basic Books