Running notes from the LIFT07 conference in Geneva.
Panel on "dealing with technological overload", with Stefana Broadbent, head of the User Adoption Lab at Swisscom (see this post summarizing her speech next year, and another speech she gave at Picnic06), Fred Mast, professor of cognitive psychology at the university of Lausanne, and Nada Kakabadse, professor at Northampton Business School; moderated by Matthias Luefkens, media manager at the World Economic Forum (who introduces the panel acknowledging his Blackberry addiction - and asks everyone to turn off cell phones and laptops, an invitation I'm not following; see his blog here).
Kakabadse: when we overadopt new technologies to the exclusion of other things, we become an addict. Addiction is a state of mind, a behavioral thing. Addicts, if separated from their technology, suffer withdrawal. The reality is that being overconnected is harmful to individual and society. Often a key consequence is that online behavior begins to interfere with offline behavior (break up of relationships, job loss, marital problems, child neglect). What to do? Separate downtime from work time; rejuvenation through outside interests; judge performance from multiple perspectives.
Mast: skeptical about using the word "addiction". We have to be careful about drawing a causal conclusion: that Internet use can make you sad (or worse). Checking e-mail over the weekend is not the problem: the expectation of having to check email over the weekend may be. And there are positive aspects: people playing videogames have an enhanced capacity to process information, for example.
Broadbent disagrees: I'm seeing much more the arrival of the private into the workplace than the workplace into the private sphere. What we are seeing through empirical research is that people are increasingly using IM, e-mail and SMS to keep in touch with their group/family/friends/community, and it's becoming an expectation to be able to keep our social network alive, and be plugged into it, over work time (paradoxically, Broadbent is observing and measuring this the country - Switzerland - where the roots of protestant work ethic are). She asks who in the room checks private e-mail at work, and all hands go up (although it's not clear where the border of private and public is). People are happy to be able to continue to bring their social life/network along wherever they go. There is something in the type of channels people are using. The most fascinating discovery I've made this year: a reduction of voice and increase in written channels (SMS, IM, e-mail, tagging, blogging). Everybody expected that with Skype people would be speaking for hours a day, but that's not happening. It's more engaging, you have to commit more, you can't multitask - while requires less commitment, and you can multitask. I ask Stefana whether rather than to tech the addiction is maybe to social relations: to friends and family and colleagues and where they are and what they do and what they think. In the research we do, she answers, we ask people to keep a diary of whom they communicate with and how. People that are not heavily online, their average number of contact is about 20. People that are online, it goes to 70 upwards. The difference is obviously that the cost of maintaining contacts decreases. 20 is what you can handle with a one-to-one channel; as soon as you add asynchronous channels, we can handle more. Nada answers the same question: of course it depends on how you you interact. If you're in a room with your friends and check your SMS, that's addiction to the phone, not to the social circle (to which I disagree: the people with whom you're trading SMS are also your social circle. My impression is rather that some people can deal with a social network that's at the same time real and virtual, being in a real-life situation and at the same time scanning the "virtual periphery" of their social network, and others can't). If we want to talk about pressure, then it's not about the volume of e-mail or so: it's a pressure about the expected response time (but, somebody in the audience reminds, often you can also not respond). Also, maybe we are discussing a problem that's not that common. Most of the people we interview have 5 e-mails a day, and they are thrilled when they get two more. The great thing that happened to them is that they are able to bring their contacts and their personal life in the workplace - workplace that's not always fun.
How do we unplug, asks the moderator? Stefana: that's not a theme. If I unplug, I lose my social intelligence. We looked at small companies, and the availability and reachability of their employees. There was a radical difference between startups and more established companies. The people in the latter can switch the phone off, or answer tomorrow; the former felt they had to be reachable at all time. (My guess: established companies have generally less of a pressure because they've established regular customer base and revenue streams that startups may not have yet). Fred: I don't see the need to switch off, we can be addicted and perfectly happy. Nada: our studies show that everybody reach social saturation, although some reach it faster. it's really about making judgments about life structure.