Traveling back home from holidays in Italy, we were painfully reminded of our sometimes empty-headed, uncritical reliance on real-time information and automated support. Our Flemish speaking on-board navigation system guided us – as usual – through unknown territory. This time however, it disappointed us twice, which was most instructive. First, it insisted we could pass through a very narrow passageway in a remote mountain village where even a trimmed-down Smart would have gotten desperately stuck. Yet, just seconds before impact we realized the system was wrong and I hit the brakes. Second, it sent us right into the centre of Zurich (lovely city by the way) where we should have passed it on our way to Basel and then France. We actually knew this – had travelled there before – but still the system was so convincing and insisting that we followed its wrong directions.
The big insight came when we decided to shut the navigator off for the remainder of the journey. A trivial decision that soon felt like being liberated.
The friendly owner of our last stop towards home – a charming hotel near the Vosges mountains – explained a route through the woods to us that turned out to be much nicer than the system would have ever come up with. Combined with a short, but careful study of the main milestones en route we were equipped with all we needed to get back home. While on the road – with no display to monopolize our attention with a flow of directions, distances and maps – we were clearly more aware of our surroundings (the lovely Lorraine countryside for example) then before. The journey thus felt more relaxed, more like a true experience and all in all more gratifying.
Let’s face it: more than ever, we rely so much on the availability of information and technology that we slowly but surely forget what the essence is of the activity we are trying to support. Data and tools become the new objective, the altar, the addiction. Sometimes with disastrous results, as illustrated by a ‘new breed of flight accidents’ that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) contributes to abdicating responsibility to automated systems – such as the autopilot – resulting in weaker flying skills.
It happens within the enterprise as well.
We all know the false illusion of control the spread sheet has been providing to managers, biding time behind their desk rather than managing their business and people on the work floor and outside. We may have the coolest CRM tool imaginable (let’s say a cloud-enabled Salesforce.com app with social extensions running on an iPhone 5 that popped up in a bar) but it may not help us a bit building a better, warmer relationship with our clients, especially if we prefer frequent, face-to-face contact with a smartphone above the client.
Nicholas Carr shows in his book The Shallows a blood-chilling image of the way “connectedness” changes our very brains. Abundant real-time data and tools encourage the rapid, distracted sampling of small chunks of information from many different sources. As a result, we become much faster and handier in getting exactly the support we need. It’s even addictive, as our brains become hungry for these delicious short, frequent bursts of information and events. What we are losing in the process is our ability to concentrate, contemplate, and reflect. Eventually, the essence of what we are doing thus becomes a vague and distant memory, something you have tagged and then archived in the cloud for later, unlikely to show up again.
What can we do about it? Certainly, real-time information and devices will not go away. There will be more. But we can be mindful about the way and moments in time we apply them. We can reaffirm their role as supporting and enabling tools, rather than as our main source of energy and the meaning of life. We can train ourselves to observe dense flows of information, rather than process it all (apply this to Twitter, for a start). We can even use technology to deal with technology, in order to filter out what we really don’t need or want to absorb: in the end, the best technology is invisible.
If all else fails, there is still – at least metaphorically speaking – a crucial, highly effective component of any computing device. It’s called a plug. Try pull it out every now and then. You’ll love it.