Instantaneous, computer-driven communication is becoming a curse, not a boon. It was supposed to free us; it is enslaving us. It was supposed to allow us to concentrate on essentials; it is becoming a pervasive distraction. It was supposed to simplify life through immediate access to information; it is complicating what we do by information overload. In administration it is an addiction that is reducing efficiency. It is increasing work time, disrupting leisure and intensifying stress.
Consider one aspect of this dangerous addiction – increasing dependence on e-mails and instant messaging. The e-mail problem is summed up in a remark by Thomas Boston, an economics professor at Georgia Tech and owner of the Enquant research firm: “Most people I know spend more time checking emails than reading for knowledge or pleasure. I can easily spend three hours each day on email-related tasks”. Email communication is seen as a godsend that helps us communicate easily and quickly with people all over the world. But it has a downside which is costly in terms of reduced office productivity and invasion of individual space.
According to the New York-based Deloitte and Basex-research firms, 40 million emails are sent daily in America, wiping out two hours of work every day per white collar worker and 28 billion hours a year at a cost of US$588 billion. The Institute for Business Technology in Santa Clara, California, reports that 45% of people they surveyed said they receive at least 50 emails per day, many of them checking compulsively every time their computers ‘dinged’. The Labour Studies Centre at Virginia Commonwealth University says that the situation is worse than that, claiming that the average white-collar worker gets 100 or more emails daily even with dozens ‘spammed’ out.
We should beware. What happens in America seeps into the rest of the world. And we have been warned. Michel Ann Strakilevitz, a marketing professor who specializes in Internet Studies at Golden Gate University in California, tells us that while in theory people should become more productive due to email, cell phones and text messaging, in fact “the time we used to find for tasks that require more than a few minutes of concentration is now being eaten up by unnecessary communication. We over-communicate with too many people because it is so easy to do so”. We are constantly distracted and diverted. Tasks requiring deep thought, long concentration, extended and focused attention suffer. We are like Pavlov’s dogs – leaving what we are doing to respond reflexively to the demands of the email or text message – however ephemeral or unimportant the subjects these messages are raising may be.
Thus it is that the combination of emails, cell-phones, laptops, Blackberrys, pagers, Palm Pilots and whatever last week’s new invention happened to be has changed the meaning of work. Jobs are now said to be 24/7. Responses to emails and text messages are expected one hour ago day or night. Multi-tasking is becoming a way of life.
Inevitably this screen-centric existence leads to work creeping into life. Leisure time is diminishing. Stress is increasing. Pseudo mini-crises dot daily life. Heather Menzies, a professor at Carleton University and author of No time: Stress and the Crisis of Modern Life, refers to a study in Britain indicating a 10 per cent drop in IQ due to distraction and fatigue among 1,100 frequent emails users. She reports on research of her own showing that shifting attention constantly to respond to incoming e-messages increases the body’s level of cortisol, the stress hormone, which in turn decreases short-term memory. When this way of work becomes a way of life an individual’s leisure level, home space and comfort, family routines and general well-being are bound to be at risk. Where in the hell of 24/7 communication is there room for the heaven of contemplation and deep thought?
I understand the huge advances which the new Information Technology makes feasible. I understand the immense advantages which spring from having instantaneous access to worldwide information. I understand, a little anyway, the conquest of undreamt of frontiers in science, technology and thought itself which now becomes possible. I only ask that we remain masters of this latest genie in a box. Do not let this mesmerizing technology become an overwhelming burden, a Trojan Horse, a poisoned gift within our walls of privacy and personal space.