Sunday, January 6, 2008

What (or *who*) counts as a distraction?

Ars Technica has a recent post featuring a study where "distractions" are blamed for US $650 billion a year in lost productivity in the United States. Intel's Nathan Zeldes is quoted as saying,"...the impact of information overload on each knowledge worker at up to eight hours a week." Ars also links to an earlier report from Pew (I heart Pew). In that study, 10% of Americans are described as, "Connected but Hassled," in that they, "have invested in a lot of technology, but they find the connectivity intrusive and information something of a burden." Another 11% are "Indifferent," who "despite having either cell phones or online access... use ICTs [information and communication technologes] only intermittently and find connectivity annoying."

I remember back when I worked in the cellular industry, and one of my co-workers once got really, really pissed at a friend who took every opportunity to tell him (and me, when we were together) how much his cell service sucked. It wasn't just the occasional complaint; this guy seemed to regard my buddy as the blotter for all his wireless woes.

So my friend eventually got fed up and said, "Look. If the service sucks so bad, next time you're stranded by the side of the road with a flat tire, or you're out of gas, or if you need to order a pizza from your car... try opening your window and hanging your head out and hollering. No matter how bad your cell service sucks, and how annoying you find the phone, I bet that living without it would bug you even more."

Now, to be fair, this was in 1995 or so, when dropped calls and bad connections were pretty prevalent. But my friend had a point; if you don't like it, lump it. I feel like a lot of the anti-connectivity sentiment stems from folks who either haven't read their manuals, or haven't really thought about what it would be like without their "distractions."

Do I find the technology distracting? Not at all. Not ever. Nope. Why? Because the tech is a tool. I can put it down. I can use an alternative. I can find a way to do things differently or more efficiently if I want. But saying that "connectivity" itself is annoying is a bit disingenuous, I think. Or, it's people being rude to technology, in order to spare the feelings of actual people. Which is fine, in the specific. I'd much rather have a good relationship with my family than my gadgets. But in the aggregate, it may be a bit hypocritical.

Why? Because when you are annoyed at "connectivity," or pissed at being "distracted," it's not really the tools that are troubling you, is it? It's the folks on the other end of the pipe. If you get 300 emails a day, it's not because your email service hates you and is trying to make you slit your wrists. It's because you've got some hundreds of people, departments, companies, etc. who have included you in conversations that you don't necessarily value.

Early on in the Age of Email, I had a boss who instituted, and insisted upon, a "no email while on vacation" rule. Whenever anyone in our group took at least a week off, he required us to remove them from emails, cc., etc. "If you need something, wait until they get back and call them. Odds are the issue will be resolved by then anyway."

He wasn't just shielding the vacationer from a ton of emails when he/she got back; he believed that cc:ing folks on email when there was no chance of them answering in a reasonable time was, simply, bad business. It gave the sender, and other recipients, a false sense that Mr. NotHere was somehow "in the loop," when the reality was exactly opposite.

That's the kind of rule you need in your life if you find connectivity to be an irritant; manage the voices, not the tubes.  Make sure your friends, family and coworkers understand your priorities, and how/when you can (and can't) be reached.

It's only a distraction if it's not wanted. And the technology just makes both wanted and unwanted communication easier.

No comments:

Post a Comment