The Great #Data Overload Part 2: Is #Digital Making Us Dumber?

The pursuit of digital (and by implication, many data-related activities) is making us dumber. Whether it’s constant multi-tasking, the need for instant gratification, the compulsion to always be “on”, or the ease of access to content and connections, there’s actually a law of diminishing returns in trying to capture and engage with all this “stuff”.

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Image © 2014 Universal Pictures

Consequently, our decision-making is increasingly governed by a hair-trigger mechanism – a single-click here, a right-swipe there, a “Like”/”Share” here, there, everywhere – which makes the outcome far less important than the instantaneous and self-validating process (“I Tweet therefore I am”). The quality of our interactions and relationships risks being reduced to a single lowest common denominator of the “fear of missing out” (#FoMo).

Current business practises focus on lean, agile and flexible – meaning that we have to get used to operating in a rapidly moving environment. However, agility is not helped by either procrastination or rash calls.

Faced with these demands on our attention, how can we come to a truly informed opinion or considered conclusion? The trick is knowing whether or not you are required to respond (not everything is relevant, vital or critical that it needs your constant or immediate participation – sometimes silence is golden). If you must make a call, then know when you have enough (hopefully, the “right”) data to make a rational and reasonable decision.

How do we build a capacity for calm, considered and constructive engagement with the digital world?

Part of the challenge is changing our (recently acquired) habits and behaviours. Speaking to friends and colleagues, there is a growing realization that reaching for your smart phone just before going to sleep (or as soon as you wake up), or constantly checking for status updates, is a noxious habit. Apart from the impact it has on our brain activity, it is also reinforcing our belief that this is normal, that we are somehow subservient to these devices, and that interacting with the digital environment takes priority over everything else. I know, I’m as guilty as the next person (watching the tennis on TV while checking the cricket scores on my iPhone…), but I am also trying to be more critical of my own digital consumption:

  • Not responding immediately to every e-mail – this is about time management skills as much as anything else; the faster you respond, the more you raise expectations that you will always answer straightway
  • Unsubscribing to mailing lists – in recent weeks, I have been unsubscribing to various newsletters because I was simply no longer interested in them or because they were no longer useful; if something’s important enough, I’ll no doubt find out about it from another source
  • Being selective about social media – I’ve written about this before in the context of authenticity and personal branding; in short, I find it essential to use different social media tools for different purposes (and to use each tool differently). That way, I manage to keep some separation between various parts of my professional and personal lives – at the very least, it acts as a helpful filter between the public and private
  • Choosing on-line connections carefully – this is another topic I have covered in a previous blog; not all our interactions are equal, and other than some basic relationship filters, most social network platforms don’t allow us to distinguish between friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and someone we met at a conference.* So, I generally decline unsolicited “friend” requests if I have not actually met or interacted with the person previously, or if I cannot find relevant mutual connections, or if I do not see what value I can add by being connected to this person.
  • Limiting notifications and status updates – similar to managing in-bound e-mail, I tend to switch off/ignore real-time notifications and updates. Instead, I prefer to check-in no more than once or twice a day, rather than always being logged in.

Finally, I’m hoping to develop a status setting for my smart phone that responds to all incoming notifications with messages such as: “Neither on nor off, merely resting”, “taking a mental pause”, “out to lunch”, or “making time for reflection before I respond”.**

Next week: Differentiating in a digital world

Notes:

* I recently heard about Humin, which is sort of moving in this direction, but it’s really a personalised CRM tool for your smart phone

** Apple’s “Do Not Disturb” function only supports “on/off” with respect to phone calls, and with a limited scope to filter contacts

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