Technology: Angel or Devil?

Technology is designed by us to help us do things, to help make our lives and work better or more efficient. But when you use it as a distraction, a different picture emerges.

I recently discovered the Note to Self Podcast, produced by WNYC, which bills itself as “A tech show about being human”. As big of a tech fan as I am, I am also a strong and vocal advocate for things like usability and human-centered design because at the end of the day, the technology is worthless if humans aren’t using it. In the past, the podcast covered a topic which is much discussed in our modern life: Information Overload.  Is tech causing it or is it just our easily distracted brains?  How much responsibility falls on tech designers vs. users? How can users get over Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) which can lead to almost obsessive-compulsive social media addictions? It’s been a fascinating conversation.

This past week, the podcast decided to do something about it and issued the Infomagical Challenge, which is designed to make Information Overload disappear.  Over five days, the podcast released a new challenge each day, encouraging people not only to participate in the challenge, but to share it with others who might benefit from it.  I participated in the challenge in a number of ways, including cleaning up my phone home screens/disabling push notifications for all but the most important apps (Day 2).  Some days were easier than others, but all were beneficial.  Check out the challenge here if you are interested.

On Friday, the challenge was to create a mantra that would guide your future self in reaching whatever your information goal was.  A bit cheesy I’ll grant you but it could be beneficial if for no other reason than to remind you of what your goal is. But what stuck with me most from the podcast was a quote from Greg McKeown, an Essentialism advocate and author of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. While discussing technology and its impact on information overload, he said,

Technology makes a great servant, but a poor master.

That quote really got me thinking.  As someone who works in technology and as an advocate for tech users, it seemed so profound and yet so simple at the same time. Technology is designed by us to help us do things, to help make our lives and work better or more efficient. But when you use it as a distraction (see any person completely ignoring others around them to scroll through social media on their smartphone), a different picture emerges.  The important thing to remember, McKeown argues, is that you are the master in this scenario. You should use technology as a servant; thus every time you go to use a piece of technology you should ask yourself whether that task you want to do will help you accomplish your goal in a year or five years or more. If not, put it down and walk away.

I have already seen how powerful this can be. Last Friday I headed to my favorite local bookstore for our monthly Cocktail Book Club, because cocktails + nibbles + discussion of books with a varied group of 5-10 different people = bliss. By Monday of last week I still needed to finish the book. For the last three weeks I had been attempting to use my lunch hour to read it; but after a week I had made no progress and I couldn’t exactly say why.  But the stress was mounting as I worried I wouldn’t finish. During the Infomagical challenge, I stopped bringing my smart phone with me on my lunch break, suspecting that the issue was my using the lunch hour to scroll through news sites and read random articles; I only brought my lunch and the book. And do you know what? Not only did I finish the book before the meeting, but my stress level in general noticeably dropped. I felt like I had a lot more time available, all because I decided to use technology as a servant and not a master.

Oh, and I am pretty sure I just added Essentialism to my ever growing reading list.


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