Coding Our Future: Can We Survive Always On?

A much maligned malady of modern times is distracted driving. With email, text, social media and various informational and entertainment apps available on our dashboards or in our pockets it seems some cannot look away long enough to reliably drive themselves from one place to another. But with more devices, more connectivity and more functionality on the horizon that may just be a symptom of a larger issue, distracted living.

Girl on phone

(Ian L)

In some instances we’re there already. How many times have you found yourself talking to someone and had them look away in mid-sentence because their phone beeped the notification of a text, an email message, or maybe even a home run in a baseball game? There is even a word, nomophobia, that was been created to describe the fear of being out of contact with your mobile phone. Do you remember the video that went viral (for a day of two) of a woman walking through the mall staring at her phone until she fell face first in the concourse fountain? How many fathers have taken off work to see their child’s soccer game and then missed the kid scoring a goal because they were answering an email message?

The most oft-cited academic research on the impact of distracted living was the Stanford-based study of  “Cognitive Control in Media Multitaskers.” Clifford Nass, one of the authors, notes. “The research is almost unanimous, which is very rare in social science, and it says that people who chronically multitask show an enormous range of deficits. They’re basically terrible at all sorts of cognitive tasks, including multitasking.”


(George Hodan)

Folks, it’s only going to get worse.

You may, like me, have passed on Google Glass and maybe even were able to resist the wrist band activity tracker. What happens when you buy clothes with devices so small as to be almost invisible? Or when tiny computers are embedded in your jewelry or house keys or wallets?

And once display breaks away from the limitations of screens, there is no such thing as looking away. Navdy, a company that claims it is producing “Google glass for your car” is one of a few company’s building systems that will display information in your field of vision while you are driving. That’s supposed to improve distracted driving but University of Kansas psychologist Paul Atchley, interviewed in the New York Times, notes, ”The technology is driven by a false assumption that seeing requires nothing more than having the eyes fixed on the right spot.”

What is does show, however, is the feasibility of displaying information anywhere rather than keeping it encased on screens. Maybe in the future when the person you are talking to wants to read their email instead, they’ll see it on the wall in back of you so they won’t appear as blatantly impolite.

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review (Conquering Digital Distraction) suggests that “digital overload may be the defining problem of today’s workplace,” adding that “we waste time, attention and energy on relatively unimportant information, staying busy but producing little of value.”

Human resource consultants are fond of using the term “work/life balance.” Nobody talked about that when you left work at work and didn’t have devices that kept reminding you of it when you were eating dinner, hanging out with your family or just reading a book. Always on technology means always working for some.

New York Times writer Tony Schwartz describes the challenge: “Employees…have their rhythms set by the very technology invented to make their lives easier and free up time. Computers not only operate at high speeds, continuously, for hours on end, they also run multiple programs at the same time. We try gamely to keep up, but it’s a Sisyphean challenge and we’re doomed to fall behind.” (Escalating Demands at Work Hurt Employees and Companies)

Double call


What may be a productivity problem for an employer is a bigger problem for society at large.  Many social scientists bemoan a decline in social interactivity in favor of the screen tap kind of interactiveness. Our digital compulsion also contributes to a more self-absorbed mentality as our focus is pulled away from our environment and from those around us. More selfies, less scenery. Even if you’re not the driver, if you’re riding in a car and never lift your head up from your phone, what have you missed? Does it even matter where you are when you disconnect from your environment?

Our kids are clearly not immune to this. Many would rather watch a YouTube video of other people playing Minecraft then go out to play ball or ride a bike with their friends.

The HBR article cited above goes into some detail on two approaches for dealing with distracted living. One is to make use of the off switch. Keep technology away from certain settings like your bedroom or the dinner table and turn off your device after checking your messaging. That might not be so easy when digital information is liberated from screens.

The other approach is to treat technology with technology. The idea behind that is to use various apps that target and filter information so you only have to attend to that which is most important or relevant.  I don’t have a lot of confidence in that since I have enough trouble avoiding just blatant spam.

Having written this one might expect that I am pretty attuned to the problem and aware of how to avoid the pitfalls of distracted living. I’m not. I find that the more devices I have and the more information I view, the less likely I am to put it down or turn it off. I can’t wait on line for even a couple minutes without pulling out my phone and checking my messages. Nor can I sit with a morning cup of coffee without firing up my iPad.

While my etiquette is sufficient that I usually don’t pull out my phone while I’m sitting with someone in a restaurant, if that person gets up to go to the restroom, guess what I do?

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24 Responses to Coding Our Future: Can We Survive Always On?

  1. jacquiegum says:

    Hot button topic, Ken. Funny that I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I saw and ad for a car that is introducing “field of vision” display in their new cars. My first thought was, “Who thought that was a good idea??? I agree…this is going to get worse and even worse, I think it will trigger a whole new set of laws. Like we need more of them. I have been working on training myself to leave my smartphone behind when I’m going out for an evening with friends. Sometimes I can do it, other times not so much. But I’d like to get better at it, frankly. I just wish more folks would…or at least the folks I’m spending the evebing with:)

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Donna Janke says:

    I learned a new word – nomophobia. I agree that digital overload is a problem, When i was working in the corporate world, the expectation to respond instantly to email and be present for chat caused a lot of spin and productivity drain. I admit to still being pretty tied to being connected, but am working on shutting off for longer periods. It does give me a greater sense of balance.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I totally agree. I’m a relatively bad multi-tasker, so maybe this resonates with me a little more. I definitely think we need to be cognizant of the ways we integrate technology into our workflows. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Personally have never been available 24/7 and never will be. That it’s a must is a myth. Employment is becoming a thing of the past so we will all be able to decide when we want to be available. The majority will reject always being on:-) Besides all human beings benefit from thinking things through before replying so stressing ourselves to feel it’s essential to answer immediately will work against us.


  5. Phoenicia says:

    People have become slaves to their phones. I do not regularly check my phone when out with friends as I find it rude.

    I read on another blog that we should only check our email three times a day 10am, 2pm and 6pm.


  6. I agree that information overload is an issue in today’s world and that it distracts us and generally renders us less productive, overall. It also isolates us from one another on a more personal level. It’s an art and a gift to be present with the experience of our surroundings, and one another, rather than distracting ourselves to the point where we don’t know where we are or where we have been. I think we all benefit from finding our own healthy balance between all the technology and our actual physical environment. Thanks for the great post.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Tim says:

    My background is in the technology industry yet I have remained on the periphery of gadgetry. My slide phone still works as expected and my laptop still functions as it should. I can leave either behind and do almost every weekend when I head outdoors. Thankfully my better half feels the same way but I agree with you in your post…it is only going to get worse for those that drank the technology cool-aid.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Sabrina Q. says:

    I am glad that I am not alone. One of my biggest pet peeve is when I am out to dinner and the people I am with pull out their phone and put it on the table. Like they are waiting for someone to call instead of being in the moment. I am sad to say that I agree, it will probably get worse before it gets better. Thanks for sharing.


  9. I’m went rounds with the pull of electronic devices, but it’s an uphill battle. I get annoyed at myself when I walk the dog and have to get out my phone at the halfway point to check for notifications. Our brains are on notification overload. Like many, I will check my phone out of habit when in line, etc, but I dislike using it at the dinner table. I make a point to be as offline as possible on the weekends, and lately have been doing more to curtail screen time before bed because blue light impacts our sleep patterns as well. As for the ability to hold a discussion, I’ve witnessed firsthand how less able high school students are to engage in a real classroom discussion than I was at the same age. You are so right… it’s only going to get worse before it gets better.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Erica says:

    I get so irritated at my husband when he answers his cell when we are out to dinner. It is such a sign of the times that my husband, who is one of the most accommodating, respectful people I know, gets confused when I complain. He feels like he is insulting the person who is calling or texting, as if he should always be available. The one time I feel lost without my phone is in my car. I forgot my phone when I went out earlier today. I get really nervous about what I would do if my car broke down or got in an accident. I can’t imagine how people drove before there were phones in the car.


  11. Absolutely agree with this blog, Ken. I’ve been stunned at home many times we’ve been traveling to the most beautiful of places and instead of people enjoying the present moment, they are on their phones. I’m constantly wondering what is so fascinating out there instead of right here. For me, detaching is a bit complicated. I work from home for a huge company and my job is 100% computer based. Then, as a writer, of course I’m writing morning and evenings. I infrequently talk on the bluetooth in my car, preferring to pay attention to the drivers not paying attention. And a great joy is to pick up a real live book and relax on the deck, hearing the sounds and reading the words. I think, too, we are headed for a crash at some point and hope it doesn’t wreck our society for good.


  12. Oh, nomophobia? I wonder who came up with that. It’s true that when I leave home without my phone, I feel a little naked and vulnerable. But by the same token, my bedroom is a screen-free zone. And I’ve found that when I try to do several things at once, I’m only cheating myself – one of the chores gets short-changed in the process.


  13. Ken Dowell says:

    And I trust you’re too focused on cars to look at your phone while driving.


  14. Andy says:

    I’m not worried about clothes that contain microscopic devices or about keys/wallets that embed tiny computers: I’m fully confident that cheaper non-smart versions of these things will still be available, and I promise to buy those cheaper versions. The “Google glass for your car” thing is another story – it sounds like a recipe for more traffic accidents (I hope I’m wrong about that).

    One other point, regarding the Minecraft YouTube videos:
    There’s only one bigger waste of time than playing video games, and that’s watching other people play video games.


  15. patweber says:

    Ken this dilemma of being on one screen or another in these times is as real a problem for the perpetrator and their “victim.” I’ve found similar research regarding differences in introverts and extroverts with – multi-tasking. I think “no screen” time – whether it’s an hour a day or a day a week to start, is a more realistic prescription than what you noted as “treating technology with technology.” Sounds to me like treating “drugs with drugs.”


  16. I think as a society we have a jumped off the deep end when it comes to technology and being “on” all the time. People are crashing cars because they are texting, waking into poles, or worse traffic, because they are walking and playing video games, kids glued to computers instead of going outside to play and the obesity epidemic continuing to climb…etc. I fear one day people won’t speak, or touch, or even make eye contact at all anymore. We’ll just do everything through text or Skype.


  17. Jim Adams says:

    I think I am one of the only people I know who does NOT own a phone. I refuse to. I am at a desk all day working for clients, I do not want to spend any of my free time dealing with technology and being ‘in touch’ any more. I like to walk, breathe, take time to watch a bee on a flower tor just watch Game of Thrones 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  18. I often wonder what will our technology bring to us? Are those “3rd world” less advanced because they lack technology, or are they somehow more advanced because they lack it? What happens if we get the solar flare that might wipe out our smart phones and computers, will we be saved by those who live a simpler life. Perhaps we are just complain about technology like those that did back when the printing press was invented. Who knows, except the future, and we will long be gone when they write it.


  19. Beth Niebuhr says:

    Ken, It’s certainly not rude to check your email when your dining partner excuses her/himself. Otherwise, I think it is. We went to a cool French restaurant in LA and the sign on the door said that they didn’t have Wifi and that “We actually talk to each other here.” It wa delightful evening and we had a lot of conversation with people we didn’t know before. Never heard of nomophobia before.


  20. This is a great post Ken. I’ve spent more time trying to adapt to “ease’ of digital scheduling, filing and tracking than completing the job I started. About a year ago I stopped it all and went back to writing things down, keeping notes on a legal pad and my filing all went back into a box.Now, I get things down instead of living on youtube trying to learn how to log in to the latest app. the way I see it, we’ve just given ourselves more things to do and we’re making everything we do way too important. I don’t need a pie chart on my day.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. I totally agree with you! We have a lot of “no phones allowed” breaks build into our schedule. And our kids don’t watch TV or play games. They don’t even know what app is. I do not want to raise little robots glued to their little cell phones whose idea of a quality time is staring into a screen. Arianna Huffington’s latest book Thrive is on the same topic.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. pjlazos says:

    So true! On a recent trip to the shore for the weekend, I purposely left my phone at the house when we went to the beach. A mini digital cleanse, but oh so invigorating!


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