Ego, Not Infotechnology, Is Source Of Overload

This morning my inbox at work had an email from AdAge, with a link to an article by Steve Rubel called Too Much Infotechnology Can Lead To Overload. I wanted to see what Rubel had to say about it, because my opinion of this phenomenon goes against what most people in my industry seem to think. Like most of the articles about the imaginary "infotech overload" afflicting folks in their forties and fifties, is a fluff piece at best. Rubel's got it all wrong when he blames technology for the overload:
Over the last decade, Americans have become hopelessly addicted to information and busyness. We have all overheard people bragging about their back-to-back schedules and massive e-mail inboxes. We crave information and busyness because it makes us feel wanted, needed and, above all, important. However, too much of a good thing is never ideal.
So, being needy is a good thing?

I used to work with a guy whose blackberry was a constant source of self-esteem. He swore he was busy busy busy, but he never did much but fuss with that device. Take the blackberry away and he's still an asshole looking for anything to do but work (part of the reason he's no longer a co-worker). Rubel would blame the blackberry and email. The root of the problem lies elsewhere.

I bring this up whenever I read anything that claims "today's target audience leads a hurried and harried lifestyle". I have to call "bullshit" on it. We're actually less busy than we used to be, despite our best efforts to prove otherwise. We have DVRs and voicemail, Roomba's and automated bill-pay options. We can time-shift a lot of things for which we used to make appointments -- but most of us are still terrible at time management. That's why the GTD folks are making so much bank right now.

But technology is not the problem. The people who insist every little alert is an excuse to drop everything are. It's called an instant message, but you are not obligated to address it this instant. When your phone rings, it only indicates that someone is trying to call you - not that you need to stop the world to take a call. If this kind of busyness makes you feel important, consider a career as a secretary or administrative assistant. But don't blame the technology for your own inability to cope and adapt.

And maybe try not to waste article inches on this stuff, especially considering the subject matter. Rubel's entire premise is that infotechnology leads to overload -- but all of his evidence supports the notion that human ego, however enabled by information technology, is truly the source of the problem.

Would Rubel's article have the same effect if he were complaining that his iPod holds too many songs to listen to in one sitting, or that his DirecTV has too many channels? When you boil down the article, it's a bit of whining about feeling overwhelmed by all these emails one might otherwise use to validate one's own sense of self-importance. If having options is a symbol of status, the truly hip will be the ones who exercise the option to opt-out at least as often as they opt-in. But that's an idea considerably less ingratiating to the bulk of Rubel's marketing industry audience.

There is no information overload, but, as has been true throughout human history, there are a few too many egos getting in the way of common sense.


DC Liar said...

I remember how difficult it was doing simple research before the advent of the modern internet. Doing a basic college assignment used to take two hours in the library, whereas the same task could be completed in a half-hour within the privacy of your own home with modern tech.
I still do similar research for work, and can't imagine how much more time it would take in the analog world.
The purpose of technology is to make things easier. If it didn't work, everyone would cease to utilize it. Period.

Onto the other side of the coin: It is a lot easier to get distracted from the task at hand in this digital age. There has never been as brilliant a time-waster as the Internet. It takes a good amount of self-determination to complete a task without being drawn into a myriad of other minor pursuits.
And Blackberries are a different animal altogether. They make most forms of communication almost instantaneous, but devolve the conversation into a load of business l33t-speak. It's antithetical to proper business etiquette and only manages sacrifice quality for speed.
I loved my Blackberry, but only used it for the most basic of conversations.
I did NOT love getting an unending stream of incoming e-mails from my bosses and clients from 5AM to 1 AM every fucking day - every single one expecting a response within 5 minutes. That's just ridiculous.vo

PYLB said...

You're dead-on right about the time-wasting properties of the Internet. Unfortunately, a lot of people still see it as a giant time-waster. Like any tool, it can help you or hurt you, depending on how you choose to use it. Which brings me back the real issue being operator error and human ego, not any fault of technology itself.

Full disclosure: I tote a blackberry for work. It does help make use of idle time, like waiting for a train, to catch up on work tedium. I also use it to refer to recipes while at the grocery store, and to fetch directions from Google Maps while on the road. Part of my job is creating branded experiences for people in the digital space, so I consider familiarity with devices like blackberry a form of research.

But I never have the ringer or vibrate alert turned on; I refuse to let it interrupt me when I'm doing something else. I know when to put it away. Consequently, I'm not known as "one of those" crackberry addicts and I don't think people expect to hear a reply from me instantly every time. At least, I hope they don't... because they're not getting one.