The Digital Dilemma: The Start of a New Digital Revolution?
I’d like to explore the concept of bandwidth. Specifically how any time bandwidth is increased, in any medium, users inevitably use it all up. Demand for more bandwidth ensues, yet again. Becoming a closed loop. The result is a seemingly endless chase for a friction free pipe that will never exist.
But my thoughts are about the bandwidth measured in gigabytes per second. I’m talking about human bandwidth. The limits of our output capacity are not boundless. And we are each unique in where we find them. But, the elusive parameter, quality of life seems for many to have become a non-factor.
I think what prompted me to explore this topic were a series of “sign-posts” that seemingly were placed to catch call my attention to my own struggle with the issue.
First, on an early September flight to the East Coast for my son’s wedding I read a Fast Company article by “the worlds’ most connected man” Baratunde Thurston. In it Thurston shared what led to his twenty-five day “digital vacation” and, explored the challenges (technical and emotional) as well as the upside. Essentially the guy had no life beyond the net and decided to take a digital sabbatical in order to rediscover the real world that real people live in. He disconnected for 25 days and marveled at all the things and people he discovered beyond the Internet.
Upon returning home I encountered a rapid succession of other technologists waxing on quality of life topics. Including the Sept. 4 post in Technology Integrator Daily by my friend John Stiernberg on work-life balance. But, what really got me thinking about the impact of the digital revolution on QoL (quality of life) was my son’s wedding. I was struck by the contrast between the surprisingly low reliance on being connected of he and his friends (all in their early twenties) and my manic need be constantly connected. How do they do it? And how did I, and most people I know, get so absorbed in technology for the sake of work? Are we really doing better? Is the work THAT important?
I’d guess, my son, new daugher-in- law and their friends are atypical of their age group. They’ve clearly decided to define and manage their QoL. For them QoL is the life right in front of them. I don’t know that any of them would appreciate being connected with Hippie philosophy. But, they live the “be here now” ideology far better than I, or anyone I knew, could have in the late 60s / early 70s. They let their calls go to voice mail as a rule. E mail gets a response when they happen to have a moment. Texts rarely require an immediate response. Yet they all manage to stay in touch and contemporary with what’s important to their lives.
My first cell phone was in a shoulder bag. In the bag was a transceiver and battery bigger than a first edition of “War and Peace”. At the time, I was running a residential system contracting company. The idea was that being accessible at all times would allow me be more efficient. I soon found I missed – no needed - my windshield time. While driving between the showroom and warehouse or to job sites was when I solved many of the challenges of my day. Unable to escape the phone, I created a myriad of opportunities for new problems to intrude on my solution creating time. [That closed loop of demand becoming greater than supply] I learned that being accessible didn’t make me more efficient. It just allowed others to take control of my “bandwidth”. You’d think I’d learn. I’m sitting on my deck as I write this. Bucolic life, huh? Not a chance. WiFi is just another version of that bag phone. I know the technology helps me get more done. Bu, I keep asking myself, at what cost? Each time some new device, promising greater connectedness, comes into my life it ends up consuming the time I had been using to be effective or creative. When will I learn?
Baratunde Thurston wrote that his twenty- five days of going digital cold turkey taught him how to balance his life better. He claims he learned how to balance his life in the real world and the virtual world. Based on what I learned of him and what I know of myself and many like me, I’m betting his life orbit is being drawn more and more toward the virtual once again. Sooner or later the digital monkey will return to his back, sucking up all his bandwidth. Forcing the emotional and creative juices out of his “life pipe”. But, I I’d like to think there’s hope for Mr. Thurston and I. Maybe, just maybe, the twenty-somethings I hung with a couple weeks ago will be the catalyst of a movement. Maybe some day, thanks to them, it’ll be cool to let it go to voice mail. Or, expected that we will leave the e mail until we have time. If that day comes will we be less productive? Is ever increasing productivity really what matters? •