The Internet enhances our (inter)connectedness which creates a paradox between productivity and distraction. The answer (inasmuch as there is a solution to a paradox) is self-discipline and embracing a new form of literacy.
As technology has connected us in unforeseeable ways, a new way of living, working and communicating with others and the world around us has emerged. Lee Rainie (Note: Jeff Sage and I talk with Lee about this stuff in episode 7 of Webidemic) and Barry Wellman in Networked: The New Social Operating System call this new type of connection "Networked Individualism". They argue that even though it seems like we spend less time connecting with others, we're actually more socially active than we used to be, just in different ways.
Rather than relying on face-to-face social constructs like clubs, networking groups, meetings and get togethers, each individual is able to better control who and by what medium they devote their time and attention to. Rainie and Wellman:
The evidence in our work is that none of these technologies are isolated – or isolating – systems. They are being incorporated into people’s social lives much like their predecessors were. People are not hooked on gadgets–they are hooked on each other. When they go on the Internet, they are not isolating themselves. They are conversing with others–be they emailers, bloggers, Facebookers, Wikipedians, or even organizational web posters. When people walk down the street texting on their phones, they are obviously communicating. Yet things are different now.. In incorporating gadgets into their lives, people have changed the ways they interact with each other. They have become increasingly networked as individuals, rather than embedded in groups. In the world of networked individuals, it is the person who is the focus: not the family, not the work unit, not the neighbourhood, and not the social group.
This shift has taken place gradually as the Internet has increased in reach and influence. When using the Internet required a bulky, immobile personal computer or a visit to a cyber cafe or library, it wasn't possible to 'live' within the digital network all the time. Fast forward to 2012 and nearly half of the population are carrying around a persistent Internet connection in their pocket. Having this always on, easily accessible connection to vast networks allows for users to shift in and out of various digital and real life networks more fluidly.
A person might be posting a status update one minute and then having a conversation with an acquaintance who happens to be in the same physical space the next. This face-to-face interaction might immediately be followed by a notification from a different social network that friends were planning to meet for lunch. A user may digitally indicate their plan to attend and then show up ten minutes later and spend an hour interacting face-to-face with those same people.
The Operating System
The use of the subtitle "The New Social Operating System" when naming the book is a clever reference to the significant change that networked individualism brings. An operating system is a software platform that enables the use of other applications to accomplish tasks – like Microsoft Windows or Mac OS X. Taking a step back for perspective, it becomes clear that the Internet is now a form of operating system. Rather than software that controls computer hardware, the Internet is a connection platform that enables all kinds of tasks to be accomplished in life. By forming the basis for all kinds of connections between people and organizations, it allows 'applications' to run on top of it that facilitate almost unlimited types of engagements from text communication to video chat to file-sharing to gaming.
The other clever component of choosing the subtitle is the literacy and understanding that go into using an operating system. Many computer users strongly identify as either 'Macs' or 'PCs'. That is, they prefer to use Windows or Mac OS X. For an average, non-technical user, their affinity is usually created out of familiarity and an unwillingness to go through the challenge and frustration of learning to use an entirely new platform.
This analogy carries over into our social interactions. In the pre-Internet days, social interaction took place through various social groups like clubs, churches, schools, and even work. Conventions and tools were well understood. Things like telegrams, postal mail and telephones were used to communicate with those at a distance. Regularly scheduled meetings were used as chances to catch up with individuals and with groups. With the Internet, many of these traditions are starting to become less useful. Digital connection has disrupted the use cases of many tools, like mail and telephone calls. They haven't gone away, but now are used for more specific niche cases. Service clubs like Kiwanis or Rotary are seeing huge drops in new memberships as younger generations find the kind of social interaction they need through digital tools instead of weekly meetings. Platforms like Facebook or Twitter allow individuals to stay current with occurrences in the lives of friends and family and are the place where they make social capital investments.
Learning to navigate this new operating system is a huge challenge for many, especially those in an older demographic who may have been used to more traditional methods of communication and social interaction.
Along with users sense of discomfort, evidence supports the feeling that large scale disruption in the way we communicate is either happening, or about to occur. Especially within larger, established organizations. As is typical with large companies that have been operating for many years, the prevalence of silos is common. As the headcount of an organization increases, so does it's number of domains of influence. Departments become set in their ways of operation and begin to establish their own cultures within the overall umbrella of the organization.
Part of this development of silos results from the way information flows. In a traditional hierarchy, the top decision makers – those with the information – share it down the tree with the heads of each department who filter it down as needed to their own staff. This information control is really about power.
One thing that the Internet is really good at is disrupting traditional flows of information. Because it provides equal access to information, the Internet tends to flatten the structure of organizations, there is a loss of control over information dissemination and therefore a (perceived) loss of power.
The flip side of this disruption is the increase in the ability to collaborate. In a traditional hierarchy, it could be really challenging for a person (node) on the tree to connect directly with another person (node) within a different tree. This connection might require a meeting to take place which may require the approval of managers across different trees of the organization or the two individuals in different departments might be separated geographically and not able to meet.
Digital collaboration breaks down a number of barriers simultaneously. Through tools like Google Docs, a number of individuals can all contribute directly to the creation of a document at the same time. There is no need for one person to create something, then send it to someone else for review and addition who then sends it on to someone else. Rather than a serial chain of contribution and change, documents can be created in parallel. Obviously the usefulness of this breaks down after adding more than three or four individuals at the same time as at a certain point, the amount of change happening within a document becomes too rapid for an individual to keep up with while still being able to contribute.
The application of work specific social media networks can allow for 'ambient awareness' to become the norm within an organization. With colleagues sharing general updates on their tasks and projects, it's possible for a far-flung (geographically or organizationally) individual to be know what others are working on and contribute easily. This decentralization of information can create fantastic accidental occurrences that can lead to increased innovation within an organization.
"Productivity" is a loaded word. It's typically used in the sense of economic output – making money – or to quantify the work performance of group of people in a company or group. It's also used to generically describe doing work as in "I had a productive day" or "that meeting was productive". At a base level, it really means to accomplish a pre-determined outcome. To reach a goal or finish a task.
The Internet has fundamentally changed how workers – especially those of the 'knowledge' variety – achieve and more importantly, measure, productivity. The tools that have been built on top of the Internet 'operating system' give knowledge workers and organizations incredible abilities that weren't possible through traditional sharing and communication methods.
What used to take a team of in-house programmers months to build can be integrated into existing systems for a low monthly subscription fee. Data collection, survey tools, e-mail marketing platforms and social measurement applications can all be assessed, set-up and integrated by one or two individuals and a corporate credit card.
These off-the-shelf tools have drastically increased the level of abstraction from the technical underpinnings that make them possible. The knowledge worker who uses Mailchimp (an email marketing platform) does not need to know a single thing about mail servers, HTML or spam filter design in order to reach tens of thousands of customers by email. This abstraction enables workers to do more with fewer resources; less people, less money, less time. In turn, companies and organizations can move quicker and increase their productivity.
A key element to successfully taking advantage of those tools is a willingness to embrace and encourage change. There are many elements of change involved but the most important is a willingness to break from tradition. "The way things have always been done" is a strong human behaviour trap. Individuals are affected by it but organizations tend to suffer from it the most. The cultural inertia present in any established group wants to resist change at all costs.
Willingness to throw away old methods, procedures and policies is critical to enabling the use of new and emerging tools. A sales driven company that holds on to old ways of reporting quarterly performance through spreadsheets that are weeks old will fail against another company willing to embrace a cloud based sales platform that gives all employees near-instant views of sales metrics. It all comes back to information flow and understanding – the company that has the most self-awareness will win.
Finding new and better ways to do things has always been a hallmark of success and taking advantage of new tools provided by increased connectedness is a place to start.
The dark side of new forms of connectedness that the Internet enables is that each individual has access to near-infinite distraction. Downloading the latest sales report and viewing a cat video on YouTube requires essentially the same skill set, time and tools. The only barrier between productivity and distraction is care and attention.
Without care and focused attention, procrastination can become a serious problem for many knowledge workers. A recent study found a strong correlation between lower GPA’s in college students and increased times spent online. The roots of procrastination come from a lack of truly caring about the job, role or task. Although virtually all humans procrastinate, being aware of it and keeping focus requires self-discipline.
Many people maintain that they are capable of multi-tasking – doing multiple independent tasks in parallel. Studies continue to demonstrate over and over that humans are incapable of multi-tasking and that trying to multi-task actually results in lower cognitive ability and longer time to completion of tasks.
Widespread use of the Internet has forced all users to become better at managing multiple streams of information and constantly sorting and filtering them in order to make sense of this omnipresent river of data. It's easy to confuse this constant filtering for multi-tasking, but in reality, this phenomenon is more of an "ambient awareness" of information across networks than multi-tasking. When it comes time to actually produce something (writing, design, planning etc.), the human brain is really only capable of focusing on one thing at a time.
When we rapidly change focus, we lose 'processing power' because our brains have to constantly change gears to keep up with the changes in attention. Interruptions cause much the same loss of focus and have a similar cognitive cost. It's useful to think of human attention as a flashlight beam in a dark room. It can only shine on one area at a time, and when the beam is moved to a new target, the old target is no longer visible.
Perhaps because of the sheer number or volume of information inputs faced on an hourly basis, modern knowledge workers seem to have developed the misunderstanding that they can multitask. Being busy is seen as an accomplishment. Colleagues (perhaps unconsciously) try to one up one another with their overload. The more meetings scheduled, the more emails received, the 'better' you are at your job – that's the culture.
Meetings are an interruption. This cost can easily be seen by contrasting the schedules of many managers against the schedule of most programmers and 'creative' types. Paul Graham writes:
One reason programmers dislike meetings so much is that they're on a different type of schedule from other people. Meetings cost them more.
Graham's point is that for many knowledge workers who make things – programmers, writers and designers for example – being interrupted by meetings can disrupt an entire day. It takes time to get into the right mindset and to engross oneself into the work before really becoming productive. Managers on the other hand tend to operate in half hour or hour chunks where scheduling meetings doesn't really affect productivity because meetings is what they 'do'.
A face-to-face meeting can be seen as an extreme interruption but digital knowledge workers face a far more subtle and subversive distraction,
If there is one thing that we know the Internet is good at, it's providing interruption. Virtually every type of "connection" to others has some way of interrupting users. New emails cause alerts and sounds, chat messages pop-up on screen and calendar reminders demand attention.
Managing these distractions requires a new form of literacy. For workers to be effective amongst this torrent of attention sapping distractions, they need to know how to manage them. No one else can do that for a worker – most software is developed with the thought that notifications from that application are the most important thing. It's not until you look at a post-pc system like Apple's iOS that you find a central notification management system that allows users to determine which apps can interrupt them and under what conditions.
Post-PC devices aside, the digital literacy to manage distraction and to effectively filter interrupting information streams is a challenging skill. It's also a skill that isn't taught anywhere or even talked about much. Younger generations learn these skills as they grow up surrounded by the need to filter and manage. Modern knowledge workers who are living and working through this revolution must adapt and learn this new form of literacy as they go and many don't realize they are doing it.
Putting it together
Bringing all these different elements – the connectedness operating system, distraction, productivity and self-discipline – together is difficult. It requires tremendous self-awareness and strong understanding of the way the digital world works. These issues present challenges across almost every sector of our society but especially in education. It’s up to future generations to ensure that they can adapt and evolve to these changes.