The Analogue Revolution

 Photo by  Calum MacAulay

It’s 7.15am on a Monday and all I can hear is the hum of a distant vacuum cleaner. My WiFi is disconnected, my phone is off and I’ve got two hours until the working week begins. For all intents and purposes, I’m hiding from the digital world. It’s the most productive time of my day.

  1. One, because it offers a rare opportunity to focus.
  2. Two, because focus is a prerequisite for producing good work.
  3. And three, because producing good work makes me happy.

If you’re like me, you’ll treasure these opportunities. But you might also accept their evasiveness as an inescapable fact of modern life. I’m starting to question why.

For me, the distraction of the digital world has become a problem. And the more I learn about the limits of our attention, the more I view it as a comparable resource to time or money: 

In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients
— Herbert Simon, Nobel Laureate

That's Nobel Laureate, Herbert Simon and that world was 1971. These days, ‘information-rich’ seems rather quaint amid the buzzes, bleeps and pings that form the soundtrack to our lives. Collectively, we process 34 billion Whats App messages and 269 billion emails per day, and our smartphone use and media consumption continue to soar. Through push notifications, the apps we download gain intimate access to our every waking moment, creating habits that are easy to form and nigh-impossible to break.

I’m not a technophobe; really, I’m not. But this is all-out psychological warfare (just click on the link above if you think that's an exaggeration). Our attention is increasingly commoditised - a resource to be mined for commercial gain. The machines created for this purpose drill into our character until they find a unique combination of words and images that we find irresistible. They’re fine-tuned until they strike the oil of a click, a view or a purchase and they’re repeated over and again.

Enter another corporate favourite - the ‘digital transformation’ and its influence on the ‘future of work’. This particular brand of progress isn’t designed to sell us things but to ‘revolutionise our 9-5 and bring us smarter, agile and more collaborative workplaces’. How does it do this? By increasing connectivity and allowing us to contribute from anywhere and at any time. By replicating the social communities that have transformed our personal lives.

We should treat such promises more critically.

We can start with the macro-view of the Solow Paradox - the correlation between a dramatic reduction in productivity growth in the 80's and the rapid acceleration in technological advance:

What everyone feels to have been a technological revolution...has been accompanied a slowdown in productivity growth
— Professor Robert Solow, MIT

It’s not enough to suggest causality but it should inject some healthy skepticism. It means that when IBM – for example – proudly claim that they send 2.5 million internal messages every day, we may pause our adulation and consider whether always-on employees are actually happier or higher performing? Has this question been approached with the rigour of a scientific mind? Try ‘the hype and reality of social media use for work collaboration and team communication’ if you’re interested in a thoroughly ambiguous answer - it may make you think twice about your latest Yammer or Workplace by Facebook roll-out.

I don’t intend to belittle the enormous potential of digital or technology. My plea is nothing more than to think harder and more critically about its consequences.

Here’s an alternative pitch:

  1. Research — if you’re in leadership or human resources, it’s important that you help your peers understand the corrosive impact of attention overload on employee performance and well-being. It means that any request for attention comes at a cost and this should be evaluated as carefully as a monetary investment. 
  2. Design — when you're planning to intervene in your employees working lives, define specifically what behaviour you are trying to change. It's possible this could be encouraged with more technology but you could also consider the opposite. This may mean making things easier, stopping initiatives that are not a priority or even helping people escape your 'digital ecosystem' for a few hours of focus. 
  3. Test — whatever you decide, be sure to put your change initiatives through the scrutiny of piloting, experimentation and statistical analysis. It means testing your ideas as hypotheses and examining them without fear of failure.

So maybe your instant messaging tool will improve collaboration and productivity. Maybe an e-learning module on well-being could make us all happier, Maybe a new employee app will make bleeps and pings that connect us with our work in meaningful ways...

But maybe they will not. And more, maybe the demands they place on our attention are actually causing harm.

We need a better way to find out. 

Vive la révolution!