I recently stumbled upon an article on the internet from way back in 2005. What caught my attention were the following lines:
Workers distracted by email and phone calls suffer a fall in IQ more than twice that found in marijuana smokers, new research has claimed.
This article was carried by the BBC News. Even as back as 2005, there was an unsettling realization of the level of digital infringement that was taking place in the everyday life of people, affecting their productivity, and resulting in something known as the “infomania”. Now gather that this study was revealed during a time when smartphones did not even exist. And yet everyone was increasingly addicted to emails and text messages. What surprised me more, upon reading this article, was not that a constantly buzzing mobile phone could reduce my functioning IQ by 10 points in a matter of days but the fact that these results were compared to the effect of marijuana. This was rather sensational if you think about it.
What worried me, however, was the fact that I am one of these people who are easily distracted by emails and text messages. There is a bright flash of blue on my phone every time there is a fresh email in one of my inboxes. I have four inboxes that I check every day, stating just to stress my point. When it blinks red, it signals a Whatsapp text and the white indicates an SMS, although this last one is quite rare these days.
Frankly, I think these digital semiotics are important simply because they exist. Without the accompanying sense of urgency, there would be no need to panic at the first sight of these bright mobile phone signals.
Then, I also think that there are muddier depths of meaning residing here in this situation. If social historians from a century or so go were to view our world today, they could make a full-fledged thesis out of examining how the modern day man is a slave to the digital media and its devices. These days may very well be flagged by them as the age of digital disruption and interruption. And the funny thing is, people who would stumble on this research would have done so as a result of an interruption or two, caused on their digital devices, in the middle of, and possibly, real economic work, causing them to switch attentions and pay heed to the blue blink flashing on their pricey AMOLED screens.
“Infomania” was quantified by a research carried out for the computing firm Hewlett Packard by renowned psychologist Dr. Glenn Wilson in the year 2005. The study defined the term as ‘a compulsive need to check emails and text messages and the switch in attention thereof.’ Now, while the study did very little to prove anything major, it did manage to highlight a social dissonance taking place in the modern society, and this was a good 10 years ago, let me highlight again. Very little has changed since then, if you think about it. If anything, we have found more reasons to tether ourselves to our mobile devices. In fact, new data show that 68% of smartphone users today engage with their devices even for a little “me time”.
Use of smartphones is increasingly catching a toe-hold in our professional lives. Even as back as 2005 when the study came out, Dr. Glenn Wilson made a strong mention of the fact that of all the people he interviewed, more than 60% claimed to be “on call” even during their off days. Fast forward to 2016, and it would safe to assume that this percentage as shot up by more than 50%. Ours is an “always on” life, after all, where there is a blurred distinction between when you’re “on” and when you’re not. Some professionals (and communication app developers, especially) believe that using smartphones boosts productivity since they allow us to attend to work at a moment’s notice. But, as far as long-term productivity is concerned, we are shaking the very balance that is essential to a content life, seeing the extent to which we are connected as we are today.
The fact is that consumer texting apps do allow for thoughtful and immediate responses and that’s a major plus. But if everything that pops-up on our screens gets dubbed important, doesn’t that defeat the purpose of it all? In any case, checking any message, mundane or not, requires you to shift your attention from your work at that moment. And the more you keep shifting your attention — the more often you keep checking your phone — the more you end up fuelling your infomania.
There are, today, communication tools specifically designed for businesses (something to the likes of TextSecure and Wickr). They primarily stress on ensuring the security of information being shared. But the detractors stress that such tools take away from the ‘real connected experience’ that’s essential to collaborative work. Plus, with such tools, there is the added need to make clear mandate what qualifies as important and urgent. One needs to make clear what ought to be communicated off the domains of professional communication portals.
I wish the world worried more about the quality of digital interactions today. For our connected experiences to be productivity enhancing, we need our communication environments to be meaningful, able to facilitate openness and easy collaboration. At the end of the day, every form of communication is detraction — whether it is carried out on a consumer chat app or a professional, secure environment. But only with conscious effort can we ensure that our constant texting and emailing does not add to the noise that hampers productivity.