What Technology Has Not Changed Part 4: People

openhouseforbutterflies2

This is Part 4 in a series of posts about What Technology Has Not Changed. Check out Part 1Part 2, and Part 3.

“The lapse of ages changes all things—time, language, the earth, the bounds of the sea, the stars of the sky, and every thing ‘about, around, and underneath’ man, except man himself.” Lord Byron, 1788–1824

Or, to put it more simply:

“Technology changes, people do not.” – Deb Schultz

If you have been keeping up with my attempt at a blog series up until now, you will know that new technology hasn’t really changed as much as we think, it pays to be present, and it is very helpful to manage time spent with new technology. I am definitely not the first person with a notion to manage time spent with new tech, however.

While I’ve been writing this series of posts about what technology has not changed, I keep coming across stories, in turn influencing my own ideas, of people who have been giving up or managing new technology in their lives.

I have noticed new tech abstinence a lot especially concerning New Year’s resolutions. A Washington Post article has 5 tips for “digital detoxing”. A show on New York City’s public radio station called New Tech City has been doing a series in the new year challenging listeners to track their smartphone usage with apps. A gentleman named Blake Snow, who has a popular blog about offline living, gives 8 tips to curb smartphone addiction.

While all of these contain excellent tips and bits of wisdom, and can help you become more aware of how much time you spend on the Internet, I worry that people will use temporary retreats from new tech much like they do fad dieting: short-term fixes for long-term problems.

It is helpful to think about the why then. Why are so many people wanting to do this as of late? What is the point?

There are a couple of personal testimonies about this phenomenon I have stumbled across that are really inspiring. One is by Christian artist Propaganda. In his spoken word he puts it this way, “Multitasking is a myth.” “You ain’t doin’ anyone anything—just everything mediocre.” “Time begged me to stop stretching her so thin and stuffing her so full, stop being so concerned with the old her and the future her. But love her—now.” “I guess you could say I’ve been through a divorce now. Me and my phone are no longer married. I think I’m ready to be here, now.” It’s worth watching the whole thing.

Technology evangelist Robert Scoble, who I have followed for almost the past decade and who has been on the bleeding edge of new tech for years, wrote a surprising Facebook post recently about giving up the Internet and finding the “white space”, or the white border that frames art, in his life. White space is to figure out what we’re about and where we’re going next, “I need white space to figure it all out with not just my employer, but my partner, my boss, my wife, and many others.”

Why are these two men doing this? What do they have in common? It’s pretty amazing considering they both have large audiences to communicate with over the Internet. Many would envy being in their positions.

What it comes down to is that we want to pay more attention to our relationships. The relationships in our business, in our families, and of our faith. “We need to heal as a family,” said Robert Scoble. Propaganda’s insight came when he realized he needed to give his wife his full attention. Is it really that easy to forget about our families? Yes.

We have limited attention spans. Humans are still wired the same way we’ve always been. But now we have more to be preoccupied with than ever before.

New technology allows so many individual streams of information to converge into one, something terrible, torrential river. Trying to keep up and interact with so many streams at once distracts from the stuff that really matters to us.

I believe new technology is ultimately for the better good. It can help us make better, smarter decisions. But we have to have the willpower and intentionality to navigate and use it. And it cannot encroach on time spent on the relationships with people around us.

When you think about it, people are information. We are bundles of speaking, grimacing, laughing, pointing, and touching individuals. To catch all of those queues, we need to pay attention and give each other our undivided attention. We should be knowledgeable about people. Knowledgeable in this context means that we need to prioritize our time around people.

Needless to say, there is a premium for this kind of human interaction. And it pays to be present. Otherwise we miss out and don’t even realize it.

The illustration at the top of this post is the simple and beautiful wisdom of children’s authors Maurice Sendak and Ruth Krauss in “Open House For Butterflies“. Perhaps we could use their advise and try a version of their single-tasking, instead of multi-tasking.

I can spend time with one stream, whether a project, reading, or, most importantly, a person. However seemingly small, I can give that my full attention, and see what I can learn.

How great would that be?

Take the time to pick out a stream today, sit by it, and listen.

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What Technology Has Not Changed Part 3: A Sense of Place

itsawonderfullife

This is Part 3 in a series of posts about What Technology Has Not Changed. Check out Part 1 and Part 2.

Over Christmas I was watching the holiday classic It’s A Wonderful Life. After George Bailey returns from the alternate reality in which he never existed, he joyfully runs through the streets of Bedford Falls, shouting exuberant Merry Christmases and addressing everyone he sees by their name.

Something struck me about this moment. It is something that struck me before about my grandfather and people from his generation: he knows people’s names!

Initially I wanted to write this post from a macro-level perspective. I had some anecdotes and research stored up about cities and environment. A macro-level perspective is great for spotting trends or writing about the past, but not necessarily for what I have been trying to get at with these blog posts.

The theme of this series so far has really been about being present, in the here and now. For we have two choices: the virtual world and the real one.

The virtual world is where people are always connected to their networks of family, friends, and coworkers through that most convenient of inventions: the Internet.

Our connected devices keep us abreast with the minutiae of our social networks with audible alerts and visual notifications. Social networks allows us to reach family and friends from across the city, country, or world. New tech is great for staying in contact with people we already know.

From the perspective of work, too, we may leave work physically but never digitally: we are attached to our coworkers with invisible tethers through our connected devices with email and group messaging. We can even take part in videoconferences so realistic that we might be in the same room.

The problem? In the virtual world, we stay connected to the people we already know, but it is rare we get to meet new people. We may “meet” people online, through a follow or forum, but the conversion rates to the real world are low. Chances are you won’t meet that person offline unless you both are very deliberate. This doesn’t seem to happen much outside of Tender or conferences.

Could it be possible that in pursuing and tending our virtual worlds, we may be neglecting meeting people in the real one?

In the real world, you get the chance to meet people everyday. If you’ve ever worked in a front-facing job with the public before, you know exactly what I am talking about. This gives the chance for you to not only meet people but make observations about them.

Some people are always in a hurry and are too busy to be bothered, to say hi, or make small talk with you or anyone else in the vicinity. They are distracted because they are occupied doing things for their work, families, or just themselves. They are in a world of their own making and too engrossed in what they are doing to notice the people around them.

There are others, on the other hand, who even if pressed for time will pause to say hello, ask how you are doing, use your name, and find out what you do beyond your job description. These are the types of people, working with the public, you are inspired by and want to get to know.

People most often get to know each other through their school, work, or neighborhood through a process of being acclimated to seeing each other everyday and becoming familiar with one another’s personalities and habits (less commonly now amongst neighbors). But there are countless other interactions that allow us to meet people as well.

Being oblivious to the people around you is not necessarily a new thing, but it has become easier with new technology and self-created virtual worlds. What hasn’t changed with new technology is how we form lasting connections and meet new people: face to face. I will talk about this some more in my next post in the series. But place gives us a context for doing this.

There is another name for this sense of place: community.

Very few of us live in a small town like Bedford Falls in It’s A Wonderful Life where it’s possible for everybody to know each other by name (if you do that’s wonderful). But there are still people we interact with on a regular basis. Whether you know it or not, this is your community.

How many of them can you call by name? In places that you go everyday: your street, local coffee shop, grocery store, or church. Extra points if you can not only name them, but name three facts about them.

I know this is possible because of two people: my grandfather and childhood pastor. My grandfather was a true connoisseur of people. He could hold a conversation with anyone and made a habit of patronizing specific places and getting to know the people who worked there, however lowly or awkward-seeming.

My childhood pastor can meet you once and has the remarkable knack of remembering your name. He will greet people as they leave church and nearly always knows who they are as long as he has only briefly met them one time.

Both of them could remember names.

Many people have lamented about the loss of community over the past few decades. I will not comment on this more than to say that there are some notable movements against this: a return to urban areas with traditional urban design, mixture of uses, and diversity a la Jane Jacobs and places designed for us to spend time in which Starbucks has co-opted a great slogan for, a Third Place.

I will not comment more on this mainly because I feel like the lack of these things is an excuse to not practice being present in the here and now and getting to know the people better at the places we already frequent. I know that because the above two examples of people who did.

My virtual world of social networks made real time with smartphones and other connected devices are just an excuse to not get to know better the people in front of me right now.

When it comes down to it, I really do not have a good excuse at all.

What Technology Has Not Changed Part 2: Knowledge vs. Information

nodes

This is Part 2 in a series of posts about What Technology Has Not Changed. Check out Part 1.

Today you turn on your screen of choice, and you are immediately inundated with an information deluge. This river of information comes in the form of feeds, notifications, updates, and the unread count in your inbox. It is probably more than you could ever look at or want to look at.

Even if you try to engage with an individual item, you are lead down the rabbit hole of connections, of hyperlinks, likes, follows, and ads. You are swept up in a raging current. Half an hour, an hour, or two flies by, and, when you look up again, you are lucky to remember what you were doing in the first place.

Does this sound familiar? This is how I have often felt anyway.

A few years ago, the tech news site GigaOM ran a series on how the “connected revolution” is changing everything. The series covered 10 areas that are being changed by always-on connectivity: cars, work, stuff, data, media, identity, body, travel, Web, and location. You could probably think of more areas to add to this list.

The jist of this is to say that we now have access to information everywhere, at any time. But is the connected revolution changing everything like GigaOM proclaims? Or is it merely a new way of doing old things?

Consider the purpose of all of this connectivity. It is to persuade you and me to do things. To consider ideas, buy things, and share information about ourselves so that it may be analyzed to better persuade us to do things…but mostly to buy things. None of that is new.

Moreover, whether always-on connectivity is even successful at improving the job of persuasion is up for debate. Are we more susceptible to new ideas and buying stuff than we were 10 years ago? Or, if we are in the business of persuading people to do things (hint: most people are), do we think new technology really helps us to do that? Or are we just solving new problems created by new technology?

Because there is evidence to suggest that always-on connectivity is creating problems for learning things we were once better at. Something about shorter attention spans.

There is a difference between information and knowledge. While we have more access to information than ever, it does not necessarily follow that we are more knowledgeable people. Information passes through you; knowledge dissolves into you. Knowledge comes from personal experience. It takes time, discipline, and moderation, which are essential for memory and learning.

Another way of looking at it is that knowledge is a qualitative measure while information is a quantitative measure. Knowledge requires time and effort and is stored in incalculable ways in our brain that are unique to each person. Information is easy to come by. It captures data, or hard facts about our world, and stores it to be shared. Data and data on data, a.k.a. metadata, is growing exponentially. So much so that we don’t know what to do with it and have created a field, “Big Data”, to figure that out.

Even with knowledge, there are distinctions of quality and usefulness. The works of knowledge–in art, music, literature–that still matter to us most were often created hundreds or thousands of years ago. They were created on analog mediums: paper, canvas, parchment, or even that oldest of mediums, speech.

They were created by people who did not have access to the information we do now but had deep knowledge of their artform. We often think of people living in pre-modern times as ignorant or plain stupid. To a certain degree, they did not know what we know now. But they had a way of knowing what mattered in life and capturing its essence in ways meaningful and impactful.

My favorite person of all time, Jesus, is a great example. He chose to communicate his message via personal experience. He lived an amazingly compelling life for one (understatement). And when he taught, he frequently communicated in parables. The Parable of the Sower, the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the Parable of the Good Samaritan. He used simple words, images, and characters taken from everyday life that capture our imaginations and speak timeless realities to people of every time and place.

Information is not a substitute for knowledge or personal experience. It’s why, although we have access to more information than ever, a student cannot just look up a subject on WedMD and perform treatment on an illness in the place of a doctor.

So when I am in the middle of navigating the river of information, I have started asking myself some basic questions:

How much time am I spending doing this?
How is this improving the things that I want to be good at in life?
And when do I stop?

What Technology Has Not Changed Part 1

touch

A new social network for a purpose you never thought of before.

The fastest and most powerful smartphone yet, including the one released last week.

I have and always will enjoy being an early adopter of new technology.* Some of my tech cred includes getting a Twitter in 2007 and an iPhone in 2008. Part of me enjoys the excitement of something new, and I have to admit the other part enjoys the coolness associated with new tech.

*I am choosing to use the word “technology/tech” here knowing that I could be more precise with my language. Let’s keep this simple. We’re all friends here.

A few years ago, though, I stopped caring so much about the newest social network or the latest, Swiss Army Knife of a computer we call smartphones (phone, camera, GPS, music, gaming, email, browser, and productivity suite in my pocket? yes please!).

Both social networks and smartphones are made possible by the Internet, powered by the cloud and 24/7, high speed connections in the air and everywhere. And now somewhere around three-quarters of Americans in 2014 already own a smartphone and are on a social network.

That’s a pretty amazing number considering closer to zero was true just ten years ago. But it also means this tech doesn’t have much more room to grow. New spinoffs and versions of smartphones and social networks are becoming more segmented and incremental and, in my opinion, just not very cool anymore.

If you pay attention to the amount of hype in the media about the latest and greatest thing, or experts hailing a change in our civilization, you would imagine we were on the verge of a drastically transformed society. But what remains unclear is how and to what degree new technologies like smartphones and social networks are actually useful and improve our everyday lives, as individuals, as communities, and in business.

A guy named Ev Williams, who happened to found Twitter and Blogger, has a theory about the Internet: it allows us to do the same things more conveniently (e.g. socialize, entertain ourselves, learn, make work easier) by making them better, faster, and requiring less thought… The same things. Not new things.

You see where I am going with this?

The Internet and the technologies it enables are amazing, allowing access to information like never before. But they are basically a new layer on old things. For this reason, I find it important and instructive to remind myself every once in a while what technology has not changed in the past 10, 20, or 30 years:

The quality of content versus its quantity. With the amount of data out there, you would imagine there would be reams of truly new and original content at the tips of our fingers. Not so. Nothing still captures our imaginations like ideas and works in art, literature, and religion that were created hundreds or thousands of years ago.

The importance and context of place. We are still bound by our physical locale despite the ability to communicate across borders in milliseconds. Industry is still located where the resources are or traditionally have been, both physical and knowledge-wise. There is no better example than the tech industry itself, which is the most concentrated in Silicon Valley and San Francisco.

The value of face-to-face human interaction. Technology is constantly changing and requires us to always be learning and adapting. This added complexity increases the need for human contact; to speak, grimace, laugh, point, and touch each other. It may seem counter-intuitive in an age with Skype and remote working, but technology increases the value of human proximity.

These three things have not changed and are perhaps more fundamental now than ever.

Over the next few weeks I want to delve further into these three concepts. In doing so, I am not endorsing a Luddite reaction to new technology. Quite the contrary–I still believe that new technology is ultimately for the better good. But I am humbly suggesting an examination of where we spend our time. And what is truly valuable and worth getting better at.

“So what?” you may be asking. This may seem obvious to the more pragmatic reader. But when is the last time you caught yourself wasting time on the Internet, in front of a screen, instead of what is near and dear to you?

I am guessing many people like me who rely on new technology, to work, learn, play, and socialize, who pursue technology for the sake of itself because it’s new, exciting, lucrative, and, yes, cool, could use a reminder every once in a while about what’s actually important. Or quite often.

We can choose to use technology with purpose and meaning then suspend it for more rewarding offline things, or we can stay connected for too long and fail to see what is really around us.

I have chosen to give up being on the bleeding edge and to not adopt every new social network or smartphone that comes my way. And this is something I still struggle with.

What do you choose?