Is Technology Making The Wrong Things Easy?


I’ve worked in the technology industry for a number of years. Long enough to have seen some incredible advances in what computer technology can do to help us solve puzzles. And then there are other times where I am puzzled about what technology is doing to us.

Not too long ago I had this thought: we can send megabytes of data over thousands of miles and do deep analysis in milliseconds, but you can’t say hello to the person sitting next to you?

A scrum master was concerned because he had emailed a question to a project manager from a different system and hadn’t heard anything back; of course there was a deadline, there is always a deadline. I asked if he had tried to communicate in other ways and he said sure, he had tried instant messaging. “Have you tried any other methods,” I asked. I got a blank stare. “Follow me.”

I led him and his tech lead up the stairs one floor where the other project manager was sitting with headphones in a large room full of people arranged across long tables. I tapped on his shoulder and when he looked up - I swear to this - he was surprised to see someone talking to him. “This guy has a question. Do you have a minute?” He nodded, probably still not sure what was happening. I motioned for the scrum master and tech lead to say something. They just looked at me. “Ask him your question.”

They did, the PM nodded a few times and then said he didn’t know. They all looked at me. “Who could probably help us answer the question?” The PM mentioned a name. The scrum master asked me if he should email the person. I said, “Isn’t that her sitting over there?” I pointed at a lady sitting across the table and three people down. They nodded. We went, now with two more people in tow.

With five of us heading around the table it was enough of a stir that I didn’t have to get anyone else’s attention. I gave the motion to ask the question and this time the scrum master launched right into it. We had an answer five minutes later with some good info exchanged between the two groups.

Now these are all very bright and talented techies. But there is something really wrong with this picture. They were so steeped in the digital world that they forgotten that some of the best engineered tools for communicating is the good ol’ biological larynx and the auricles on the side of your head.

Here is my concern: we have become so enamored with technology that we think that the next piece of technology is going to solve the problems that the last piece of technology just introduced.

The video technology around the house, such as the laptop and television, is making me more sedentary, so now I need an app on my phone to figure out how to get exercise. My last smartphone made me recognize how much in-between time I have, such as waiting in line at the store or even the micro-moments waiting at a stop light, so now I need the next smartphone that has a bigger screen for the micro-games that can kill any slight feelings of boredom or introspection that I might have. It’s getting easier and easier to get lost in the technology - which is exactly what most of these companies want. You’ve logged on just to take a five minute break, and then twenty minutes later you are looking at pictures of someone’s pets and have no idea why, or watching videos of pool failure compilations.

The point of a lot of modern technology is to take me away from activities which are harder in life. But is that what we really need?

From a New York Times article:

But the deeper reason that technology so often disappoints and betrays us is that it promises to make easy things that, by their intrinsic nature, have to be hard.

Tweeting and trolling are easy. Mastering the arts of conversation and measured debate is hard. Texting is easy. Writing a proper letter is hard. Looking stuff up on Google is easy. Knowing what to search for in the first place is hard. Having a thousand friends on Facebook is easy. Maintaining six or seven close adult friendships over the space of many years is hard. Swiping right on Tinder is easy. Finding love — and staying in it — is hard.

I wonder if this movement towards taking away the difficult activities in life - but are really just giving us shallow experiences - is making it harder for us to embrace challenge? I don’t think many would argue with me that the best teacher is experience. But not just any experience; often to really learn something it cannot come easily, or we may even need to fail, at least a bit.

One of my favorite nonfiction writers, Matthew B. Crawford, author of such books as Shop Class as Soulcraft and The World Beyond Your Head, argues that the very place where we find agency, and even freedom, is in learning how to do real things in the real world. But it’s not easy; certainly not as easy as giving in to the distractibility of the digital impingement that is constantly pinging for our attention.

You’ve made it this far into an article and are still reading, so maybe there is hope for humanity after all. Or your laptop is rebooting and your phone is on the charger. But still, I’ll assume the best. Now let’s talk about what this might mean.

The technology that is now ubiquitous is meant to be easy. But is staring at a screen what you really want out of life?

The average adult spends close to 11 hours looking at a screen per day and checks their phone every 10 minutes. And those are probably under-estimated.

This is not just a work problem or a personal problem - it is costing us valuable time and keeping us from experiences that are actually memorable and developmental.

Cal Newport is trying to start a movement of digital minimalism, which means understanding how much time is being sucked away and actually doing something about it. But I believe this only works if you have clarity about what you truly want, beyond not being bored in any given moment. Doing the hard work of determining what you really want out of life may be one of the most difficult things you can do, and don’t think an app is the way to figure it out. You may actually need to talk to someone about it.

Technology should automate repetitive tasks that keep humans distant, not help make us distant.