We need a Digital Fix, because we can’t work at machine speed
Computers enable real-time, instantaneous connection worldwide - and that's a huge boon. But the also operate at a relentless pace, that will crush us if we try to match it.
Why are we talking about a Digital Fix this year?
Simple: it’s the most important issue in tech right now, both on a societal and on an individual level. We’ve spent a lot of time talking about the political, business and social fixes we need - but how about the personal?
If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to talk for a minute about my personal experience over the last couple of weeks, that illustrates the point.
Knowledge is no defence
I’m pretty aware of the dangers of digital; For the last 18 months or so, I’ve been writing about the problems with digital life here, through the topics of Digital Sucks and Digital Fix. In fact, I’ve been addressing it since 2013’s topic Here Be Dragons.
But that didn’t stop me burning out completely. The pressure so the news cycle, the 24 hour availability, and even the proliferating communication channels saw my work spiral out of my control for a small while. Hints of it were visible in my social media channels:
21st century communication: not only am I desperately behind on my correspondence, half the time I can’t remember where it is. Is it Twitter DMs or Messenger or Slack or email or…?
— Adam Tinworth (@adders) June 19, 2018
I wrote about it on my own blog, in slightly oblique style. But I carried on pushing forwards until I couldn’t cope any more.
By the beginning of this week I was over-stressed and over-whelmed and making poor scheduling — and sleeping — decisions. That’s not just bad for my productivity, but it’s also bad for my continued ability to be alive. I had two lots of three hour drives earlier in the week, and spreading myself all over a motorway because I was suffering digitally-driven exhaustion is not an appealing prospect for my family or I.
In the end, I had to force myself away from the keyboards, both the physical and virtual ones, and only attend to real world commitments. I cleared time on Thursday morning to complete a bigger-than-usual NEXT writing project (of which you’ll hear more in the future), and banned myself from accessing anything but the web for research until it was done.
As I write this, I'm getting things back under control, but it's been a harsh lesson of how quickly the real time, always on nature of digital communications can over-whelm you, however conscious you are of the risk.
Realigning digital with humanity
However, this experience reinforced in me just how important this year’s theme really is. I’m well aware of the dangers of digital life, but I still fell prey to them. The systems we’ve built - or decided to use - move at a literally inhuman pace, and there’s no way we can actually keep up.
As a friend helpfully pointed out (on Facebook, ironically):
The information superhighway doesn't - as the name suggests - operate at a pace in time with our own natural biorhythms. If we try and keep up with the machines it's a race we're going to lose. I hope a conscious reckoning about that's underway. Technical connectivity can enhance our existence but it can very easily overwhelm it, what's special about being human and the world all around us.
That conscious reckoning is very much about what this year’s topic is about. It’s not about the knee-jerk reaction that “digital is bad, mmmkay?”, but instead a mindful approach to wrestling the tools of the digital world back into out control, so they serve us rather than drive us.
This is why it’s more than a question of a digital diet or detox. We need to address not just the personal response to technology, the systemic behaviours we are building around it. My own awareness of the problem does little to help me, if I still need to dive into half a dozen messaging clients to keep up with friends, visiting Facebook to fins out what’s happening in my daughter’s school and keep on the e-mail treadmill.
If even those of who understand what is going on can’t escape it, we need to change the system.
The path to a digital fix
We need to change:
- Our design approaches: prioritise human scales and offer people different choices from the existing ones.
- Tech companies need to give us better digital tools and the rest of us need to realise how prevalent tech is.
- Uncomfortable as it might be, we need to accept the current wave of government intervention, and plan for the next wave.
- We need to reverse the centralisation of tech - and persuade people it matters
- And how about a more serious appraisal of digital ethics?
That’s just scratching the surface. If you have some passionate ideas about how to apply a Digital Fix, we’d love you to join us in Hamburg in September.