Friday, June 17, 2011

What has mobile done to your life?

There's a lot of material out there about the effects of mobile-always-and-everywhere on your work/life balance, your ability to focus, the standards for table manners, and the development of your kids' brains (the damage you've already done to your brain probably dwarfs what your phone is doing). My professional life revolves to a great extent around mobile things, specifically delivering content to consumers on mobile devices and letting companies profit from doing so. I spend a good amount of time talking about the future-is-now world of mobile computing, continuous connectivity, and ubiquitous media consumption. Until now, I haven't really reflected on the impact this technology and the ecosystem it has spawned has had on me, personally.

First off, I am not really an early adopter of smartphones. Well into the smartphone era, I carried a feature phone useful only for making calls and exchanging texts. I rationalized this by claiming I wanted a phone that was good for talking, an ipod for listening to music, and a laptop that was good for computing. I used my disconnected time to do the things that didn't require an immediate and continuous internet connection, so I batched up outbound emails and produced artifacts that were stored locally and shared later, and cached inbound things for offline consumption. I was not particularly active on facebook and I didn't tweet or follow. It was OK that I didn't read all emails the instant they were received. It was OK that some times during my waking hours I was inaccessible.

At some point, it became clear that I was not as effective at certain things as I could be because I could not always respond to communications in real time. As my job began to involve more interaction with customers and as more customers began to use our service, it became critical to know what was going on all the time. I bought a non-iphone, pre-Android smartphone and suddenly my BART commute to work lacked the quiet time I used to fill with thoughtful email composition and other offline activities. I benefited by being hyper-responsive to customers and internal issues that required quick thinking and a quick response.

It didn't happen all at once, but over a short period of time, I became addicted to being connected. I had the classic symptoms--phantom phone vibrations, checking the phone on the toilet, waking up at night to check for incoming emails, etc. But more subtly, I've noticed that I can't not work anymore. Even when working for early stage startups, where you tend to put in long hours all through the week, it is possible to not work. This is different. It doesn't matter where I am--in the office, taking a walk at lunch, on a hike over the weekend--there's enough work activity to keep a steady stream of communications flying past me all the time, and I can't ignore it. I can pretend to ignore it, and I don't always respond to the incoming emails right away, but I know they are there, and they keep a certain percentage of my brain engaged in the work world.

I know this is a common syndrome. I don't know what effect it will have long term on productivity, innovation, cognitive development, and life expectancy. The impact on my quality of life has been mixed. I am probably more effective at my job because there is less friction in the flow of information (both incoming and outgoing) and I can respond to things as they occur. But I also find myself making more mistakes in my communications (from stupid typos and autocorrect hilarity to misunderstandings and misrepresentations), and the impact of attention sharing during face to face interaction is not positive. Since I think everyone is in the same boat as I am, I'm curious about your perspective. Feel free to share in the comments.
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