Being connected does not mean being productive

By Rehan Khan. Published in The National on 1st March 2010. Case, the flawed anti-hero of William Gibson’s cyberpunk novel Neuromancer, is desperate to link his brain through a computer interface back into cyberspace. If executives attending last month’s Mobile World Congress have their way, we’ll all end up like Case, craving to be hooked up to smart devices.

The executives touting smart devices and networks in Barcelona like to pitch their stall like this: office workers to remain productive and efficient must have a smart device, which uses a high-speed broadband wireless network such as one run by a mobile operator. The intelligent fail-safe network will in turn connect to cloud-computing-based applications and resources hosted on the internet, where companies such as the omnipresent Google will be the gatekeepers to the information.

And so, they tell us, we are on a journey into a shiny future in which each office worker will remain connected and abreast of the latest information at all times and in any location on the globe.

Fast access, through smart devices providing context relevant information, is the name of this new mobile broadband game.

Everyone it seems wants to be in possession of one of these smart devices. That is certainly what a recent poll carried out by YouGov Siraj discovered. It found that 58 per cent of Gulf consumers said they wanted an iPad. It’s a shame that more than 50 per cent did not understand what features this new smart device actually offered.

But why let that worry us, because smart devices are for smart people and we all want to be seen as being smart by our peers and superiors.

But before you dash out and debit your credit card with the latest shrink-wrapped smart device from the local retailer, allow me to trouble you with this theory I have: smart devices don’t make us smart; they make us too smart to think.

The vast majority of business professionals suffer from information overload, a phrase popularised by Alvin Toffler in his book Future Shock (1970) in which he describes there being “too much change in too short a period of time”.

As workers in offices, we spend most of the time processing a tidal wave of information hitting us from various sources and directions. We should be doing something meaningful with this information but there’s too much of it coming too fast, so instead we neatly file it in the folders on our smart device.

Maybe we might come back to it when we have a moment to think, but like the hamster on the wheel, we don’t want to stop or else we may fall off. In today’s economy that means someone else will replace us before we have time to dust ourselves off and get back on the wheel. So we keep going faster, buying into more processing power to help us handle the information which keeps on coming.

According to research by Basex, information overload in the US alone has cost the economy US$900 billion (Dh3.3 trillion).

“Information overload describes an excess of information that results in the loss of ability to make decisions, process information and prioritise tasks,” says Jonathon Spira, the chief executive of Basex. He estimates that this equates to the loss of 25 per cent of the knowledge worker’s day.

The sheer volume of information is overwhelming and the ability to connect to this information from any location, be it home, office or on the go, through any medium, such as smartphone, personal digital assistant or tablet PC, means that we, like the doctor, are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

So why are we doing this to ourselves?

Immediacy. We have all grown used to and crave an immediate response from our bosses, co-workers, customers, business partners and suppliers. Our communication must be quick, rapid and instant. If we are not typing, talking, faxing, blogging or waving our arms about trying to get everyone’s attention, we are in the contemporary sense being unproductive.

If, though, you allow me to slow things down for a moment, I wonder whether we actually need all this information so immediately. Perhaps the only professions that need to be on top of real-time data from around the globe are those who work in the finance sector, some journalists and those in the military and political field.

The purveyors of smart, always-on devices seek to convince us that we all need to be jacked in all the time.

However, as any office worker will vouch, in the pursuit of an information elixir we’ve become paralysed by the sheer weight of processing the information. The result is that too many of us are not thinking through work in a creative way, we are just reacting; the net effect being that the organisations we work for are not getting the best out of us. So instead of focusing on shifting the rocks we are occupied by the pebbles.

The people we get nearer to resembling each day are the frantic stockbrokers and traders on a dealing floor. We have turned into information-hungry consumers surrounded by smart devices pushing data around faster than it can be processed. In our rush to be seen as being productive we never say no to the information. We scoop it up and want to appear busy than appear to be thinking deeply about the problem or issue at hand.

We have collectively ended up as unproductive, reactive, techno-zombies looking for the next fix of information. Surely the modern workplace was never designed for this. So if being docked into cyberspace collecting junk information is our idea of work, then let us embrace the technology evangelists who were in Barcelona last week strutting their stuff.

If we’d like to make a real difference to the quality of economic growth then I’d suggest that we routinely turn off our smart devices and create some space to think. We’ll probably discover that we’re smarter than we gave ourselves credit for.