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I, Robot

We work, travel, eat, run and sleep.  We play, we share.  We think, we dream, we speak. We function across time zones and we have global conversations. The common thread to it all: we are digitally connected. Time Magazine reports that every day we check our phone an average of 47 times (every 19 minutes) and spend roughly 5 hours of screen time – some experts quantify it at exponentially more.  This month, the Mediatree thinktank asks whether the age of technology and hyper-connectivity is getting the better of us.  We need our smartphones in order to do our jobs but how do we know when it becomes too much?

An era of hyper-modernity means new workplace behaviours
A study by the World Economic Forum (Davos) estimates 65% of today’s children will do a job that doesn’t yet exist.  Acceleration of Artificial Intelligence (AI) means 85% of new jobs its development will generate haven’t even been created.  To keep up we harness our creativity and adopt new working behaviours.  Three trends have emerged: 1) increased use of digital technology 2) fragmentation of how a person’s time is spent in various activities of their life3) a sense of community and belonging via social media (WhatsApp groups, Slack, Instagram…).

Whether it’s engaging in multi-tasking (when was the last time you went to a meeting where people weren’t taking notes, looking at their smartphones and speaking to their neighbour all at once?), micro-leisure (very short, regular bursts of online leisure moments like online shopping, sending SMS or posting on social media during the work day) or blurring (erasing the line between your professional and personal lives), there is no doubt technology has changed our behaviours and created an umbilical cord to our smartphone.  This looks to be a trend that is here to stay.

How we work: we are adapting to this new landscape
New technology means accessibility.  Look how quickly email has become the work on top of our work. McKinsey Global Institute estimates that high-skill knowledge workers spend 28% of their workweek managing e-mail, roughly 13 hours, costing 650 hours per year.  Gartner finds that on workdays, 53% of business users check e-mail six or more times a day, while 34% of users check e-mail constantly throughout the day—that’s probably you and me, given the 24/7 accessibility required in Investor Relations, capital markets and events work.  In the US, the distraction caused by time spent by the workforce on social media was $650bn in 2016, while in the UK the Centre for Business research estimated it at £26bn.

The economic cost is only one part of the equation. There are human and qualitative costs as well.  Cal Newport exposes a growing inability to do ‘deep work’, which impairs the quality of what is produced.  Full-on communications and the ‘noise’ of digital channels put us in a state of constant interruption.  Various studies point to some form of digital interference at work every 3 minutes, which brain scientists claim can take up to 23 minutes to recover from.  So in attention deficit, we curtail our output.

Faced with this cost, companies adapt their work practices to prevent employees to become human routers: mail free days, limited times for digital exchanges, detox weeks, email effectiveness training… all these initiatives are responses to the new by-product compulsive and productivity-destroying behaviours the technology has brought on.

Technology and the brain
So, is technology getting the better of us?  Social scientists and neuroscientists are discovering more and more that the balance between humans and technology is a delicate one and can quickly unravel.  Many news headlines in the past two years pinpointed the isolation it can occasion as well as its addictive nature.  Studies by psychologists, social scientists and business institutions abound to spell out what all this screen time means for our brains.  Former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has raised and highlighted extensively the impact of loneliness in the workplace, which has doubled since the 1980s, and has catalogued the nefarious effects of this on the organisation as a whole and its bottom line.  Organisational health and profitability aside, psychologists are uncovering the impact of hyper-connection on mental health and how too much exposure can lead to exhaustion and burnout.  Similarly, the media is almost saturated with stories of people (often teenagers) all over the world sent to digital detox camps costing $400+ a day.  HR officers today have a far-reaching role in helping their employer navigate the pitfalls.

Neuroscientists have been sharing their findings on the importance of dopamine triggers in technology.  When the brain’s reward system (and its habit-forming loop: trigger-action-reward) is triggered by an algorithm, what chance do we have?  Some programmers’ raison d’être is to shape people’s minds using irresistible apps that optimise AI technology.  Ramsay Brown, founder of Dopamine Labs in Venice Beach, California, renamed Boundless Mind in 2017, specialises in design, neuro-atom, computer programming and AI.  His idea is to hack into the brain’s natural circuits in order to shape human behaviour.  Ironically the company’s mission is “to disrupt America’s addiction to technology” and the founders are very clear that they will “resist the temptation to use their technology for the wrong purposes”.  We have seen Facebook’s beleaguered CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s relentless work to recover from the Cambridge Analytica scandal.  This “resistance” is easier said than done.

Shoshanna Zuboff’s (professor emerita at Harvard Business School) ground-breaking book (“The Age of Surveillance Capitalism”) exposes the relatively new field of research called persuasive technology, which draws on advances of neuroscience and behavioural psychology and drives firms to produce better behavioural-prediction products.  Most platforms today use it to keep users on the interface as long as possible.  So in plain English, we are not being weak-willed because we stay on our phones, our brains are getting a little help from the engineering.  The ethical ramifications are significant, and we are still understanding the full extent and impact of the tech takeover.

Our humanity is our saving grace
Companies around the world are responding to this and creating alternative ecosystems to promote their human assets and help their employees curb their habits, using technology for good and for positive change.  Companies like Volkswagen or BMW are restructuring sending and receiving of non-emergency emails after hours, The European Parliament, and some of its key countries like France are legislating for companies to limit work incursions into private time. Giants like Telstra in Australia have mail free days, and promote ethics and wellbeing.  Psychologist Melissa Hunt’s work shows that limiting social media use to 30 minutes a day significantly reduces the sense of loneliness and fear of missing out (FOMO) that draws so many people to their apps.  Other solutions like mindfulness, phone-free meetings and organised social interaction with colleagues also serve to re-balance us. Anything to reconnect with our human side.

So when we forgo sleep in our hotel room in Hong Kong to respond to yet another non-urgent email conversation, or when we are glued to social media between our one-on-one meetings to numb the boredom of another transfer in our chauffeured taxi transit, we can just look up, smell the coffee and reset.  We are human. We can exercise choice and we can remember that we have the power to control our own minds by putting down our phones.  As consumers, we can say no and set boundaries.  As citizens, we can vote for lawmakers to protect our rights, our privacy and our data.  As professionals, we can choose to email less, post less and engage more with the real world.

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