As I sit here writing this blog on my Apple iPhone, I look around and see 99% of the people sitting near me are also looking at their smart device. Couples sit oblivious to each other’s company eyes reflecting the faint glow of the screen they so intently study. I look out of the window and the scene is the same, people wander the streets doing the smartphone prayer not focusing on their journey but intent on a virtual world embedded in a small black square of metal and glass. And it’s not just the UK. As I travel the world it is the same groups of zombie like people drifting from one experience to another lost in their digital world. I can’t even see a distinguishing line between generations any more either. Some time ago I would have written about this as a youth phenomenon, but now all generations are being absorbed into the digital revolution.
So what is it about this technology that fascinates us, why are we all disconnecting from a real world moment to seek information, inspiration or attention from a virtual world we can’t touch or feel.
To begin to understand the addiction with digital devices I looked back to a study by B.F. Skinner in the 1950s that demonstrated the theory of the variable schedule of rewards. Skinner observed that lab mice responded most voraciously to random rewards. When mice pressed a lever, they sometimes got a small treat, other times a large treat, and other times nothing at all. Unlike other mice that received the same treat every time they pressed the lever, the mice that received variable rewards pressed the lever more often and compulsively.
Similar to how mice behave when expecting to receive treats, we eagerly check our phones at the slightest ring or buzz, because the dopamine trigger in our brains compels us to answer. The everyday mundane phone messages that we receive frequently are akin to the mice’s small treats. The big treats are the messages that give us pleasure — a message from a friend, a phone call from a loved one, or that funny video we must see. It’s the big treat that is addictive to us and, since we don’t know when that big treat is coming, we “press the lever” compulsively and as often as the ringtone calls us. We are compelled to look at the screen and answer, regardless of where we are and who we are with.
As a business tool this addiction is augmented by the recognition that digital devices and access to the digital world is a fundamental part of business communication these days. That email, text, IM message or call could be an important one from my boss, peer, customer or supplier. And because we combine our social and work life into a single device we never turn it off, theoretically indicating to the world that I am always available, and because we constantly respond to messages irrespective of the time of day or day of week or even life event, we condition the world around us that we are available, thus raising their expectations for a response, and disappointment when they don’t get instant gratification.
The question is, “is this access to information and people instantly a good thing for us?”
The answer in my opinion is, it depends. In my experience if managed correctly technology can enhance our world, and our interactions with people. For instance as I write this blog, my son is in Thailand enjoying himself on a beach. For many years I wouldn’t have heard about his experiences until he came home, potentially months from now. Access to him would have been limited and my wife and I would have to wait to find out if he was safe. In todays technological society, I know the moment he lands, I have images sent when he experiences his adventures and we can communicate daily or even hourly if we want to as if he was only in the next room. On a business level, I communicate with clients all over the world via Skype, email, instant messenger and text as if they were in the same country without event thinking about the distance.
This access to people and information is invaluable at a personal and business level, however it can be intrusive when I don’t balance the virtual with the real world. Stella, my wife, constantly tells me to put my phone away when we are together, and as we spend so much time apart I need to remember that the real world is in front of me and not within the width of a screen.
So my thoughts are; yes it’s amazing what we can do with technology. But just because we can, should we? Remember there is a real world you are living in, detach from the digital world on a regular basis. Switch off the device, detox your system from digital gratification and look at the people around you. Don’t answer the call, email, text immediately. Stop, think, reflect and deal with the people you are with. Focus on them in the moment and schedule time to get your digital fix.
Balance is the truth to the digital revolution, balance and a recognition that these devices where designed to help with, not control our world.