Technology is a lot like crack cocaine

  • Posted by: James Marshall
  • Category: Communication, Leadership

During the February half-term, I took my family to the Mary Rose museum in Portsmouth, one of the best museums I’ve been to in a long time. Brilliantly designed to recreate Henry VIII’s part-recovered warship, I had a field day, as it brought to life every aspect of that medieval world from ship’s rats to longbows.

My children however did not. They loved the talks, the films and the interactive displays, but for most of the time they were listless, bored and distracted. It got me thinking about our children’s capacity to concentrate. Should we be worried? Was I any different at 11 and 9? What can we do to improve it? And crucially who is to blame? I think the answer to that last one is, it’s partly me. Adults. We are the ones modelling distraction, endlessly picking up our phones, endless absence.

This theme of digital distraction got me thinking. I think change is in the air. I met a US consultant called Ivan at a conference recently who told me “our relationship and patience with technology is running out.” Most people I talk to agree. It’s gone too far hasn’t it? The revolution was televised, then digitised and placed on Facebook. It’s time for a new revolution.

Ivan alerted me to a book he’d just read by Prof Cass Newport called Digital Minimalism. It’s an excellent read and a follow up to his earlier book, Deep Work, looking at how technology is reducing our capability to have extended concentrations and conversations. Digital Minimalism has some fascinating insights into the damage that technology is doing to us:

  1. None of the tech moguls in the 1970’s envisioned how our relationship with technology would evolve. Steve Jobs just wanted to combine your Walkman and Phone. Nothing more complex. Rumour has it that many of the tech firms are now terrified of their own Promethean acts, from observing their own children’s behaviour.
  2. Nobody could foresee how addictive emails and apps would become. Apps in particular are designed by people who understand the psychology behind addiction. Instagram is like crack cocaine, endlessly seeking rewards. It changes our brain chemistry.

All of this is having an impact on children but it’s also impacting business. Be honest with yourself. People are sending too many emails, over-using Slack. Many of us feel like we’ve accomplished little at the end of a day. Psychologists explain that when someone emails us, we feel an obligation to reply to these “social commitments,” and because you haven’t done so by 5pm you can feel anxious and drained.

Deep inside we know we’re often spending all day talking/emailing but no time focusing and creating value. Newport says “our capital resource are human brains and yet we set ourselves up to use them like human routers. We put barriers in the way of our best people. No wonder productivity is stagnant in Western Europe, why we are burnt out and why we have no time at home. Something is broken.”

I found his arguments compelling. Many of the businesses I consult with, work at such a fast pace that they make mistakes. Meetings run quickly or without structure and miss the key point. They might take part in a pitch for a potential £15m worth of revenue but don’t take two hours out to think about or practice their USP or the client’s “unconscious needs.”

Newport maintains a revolution is coming. Within 5 years we will look at allowing a 13-year-old to have a smartphone the same way we looked at a 13-year-old having a cigarette. Well we know what happened to cigarettes.

But he makes a crucial point about how technology evolves. In the industrial era we began with simple factories but soon they were deemed inefficient. More complex buildings were designed to ensure you produced the best possible product. So too will our offices evolve. Work space will be designed to ensure high performance, good communication and the opportunity for deeper focus. Why? Because the cost of interruptions is expensive. Firms are realising that there is a competitive advantage to setting yourself up, so you have deeper conversations, to think fast and slow.

Some people are turning off, tuning out and dropping out. Newport christens this growing number of people “digital minimalists”, people who are more selective, optimised and intentional. The research is interesting. Digital minimalists do seem to have an edge. They report being calmer, happier, better communicators and crucially develop a hinterland, a life outside work. They can have fun with friends without either the need to look at their phone or the obsessive urge to document the experience.

The truth is human beings crave high quality activities for their leisure time, and yet we have these distractions robbing us. Then we paper over the cracks of this loss with more distractions.

So how do we get to become a digital minimalist?

  1. He advocates a 30-day “digital decluttering” turning off all social media, blogs, podcasts, TV. If you can, restrict yourself to three views of email a day. For work this is a conscious effort to stop looking at Facebook, Instagram, Blogs, (I know the irony.) Podcasts, Slack.
  2. After 30 days you only allow back what has a strong case for giving you value.
  3. The results are fascinating. People tend to drop what offers no value and start to use tech in a cleverer, smarter way. Optimisation is key here. Defriend most of your Facebook friends. Newport says “the idea that it is valuable to maintain vast numbers of weak social connections is largely an invention of the last 10 years.” For many, Facebook now offers them nothing. I stopped using it months ago.
  4. What is interesting is that people then rediscover the things they have lost (expect a rise in fishing and board games, that seem to score well). Hobbies they let go, time with family.
  5. Of course, it will be hard and inconvenient. But the positive reward far outweighs the inconvenience. The lesson seems to be that we do not realise the cost to us of ripping out those “analogue activities.”

Imagine what would happen at work? Without the overuse of email, Slack, there will be more time. Time to talk, to seek clarity and to understand. Staff will be calmer.

As part of Talking Ape’s leadership programme we are going to dare people to digitally declutter and see what happens.

I thought about this whilst walking around the Mary Rose. Life may have been bleak (conditions were grim, and your teeth were gone by 35!!) but you could see that people had fewer possessions, they enjoyed each other’s company and there was time to think.

Technology is here to stay. But haven’t we had enough? It can improve the quality of our life, but now seems to be intent on ruining it. We must become more intentional and more purposeful. We need to build businesses that mitigate its use. The real FOMO (fear of missing out) should be a fear of not giving enough attention to the things that we know are important. Come and talk to us about our highly acclaimed leadership programmes.


Author: James Marshall