There’s been a lot of writing recently (it seems, although I’m sure there’s been a steady current of articles about this for many years) about switching off. The overload of social media, streams of content over pages, notifications, alerts, snackable content leading to continuous partial attention is encouraging many to resort to disconnecting. Turning off their devices and going dark.
The idea is laudable, getting away from the constant babble of our networks, a ‘digital sabbath’ where we haul ourselves back to a better time where we’re not bombarded with messages and pings, so we can spend time enjoying our family, friends and surroundings, perhaps even pick up a good book, cook a good meal or just have a well-deserved nap – but I think disconnection is a dangerous idea.
Disconnection suggests that it is connection which is the problem. Connection is not the problem, but rather our lack of useful tools or abilities to create boundaries and filters for what information we’re allowing to reach us at any one time.
The line drawn between work and play has blurred so significantly that it is not uncommon to read work emails on a Sunday morning over the newspapers. I have absolutely no problem with this – as a freelancer, I never stuck to the traditional Mon-Fri 9-5 concept. As a creative, idea generation never respected the office hours template, so I’d frequently relax on a Monday if I wasn’t in the zone, and work on a Sunday if I was inspired or late night coding sessions, and day time napping.
The more these traditional working hours collapse, the more peoples phases will shift in relation to one-another and the less reliable it becomes to expect some sort of downtime during 5-9 or weekends.
Disconnection is the easiest answer – turn off all communication, however this means you’ll not receive ANY prompts to switch into another thought mode (perhaps from play to work, or broad absorption vs. focussed attention), no matter how important – the death of a relative, an urgent opportunity for new business, a last minute invite to a party. From FOMO (fear of missing out) to just MO.
And we don’t actually want to be disconnected – maps, calendars, read it later applications, television – they’re all really useful and likely desired connected tools which we’d want to use, but come with the fear of accidental leaking in of messages from an undesired source, perhaps work email. Despite many of these being binary driven tools, this is not a binary state. We should not be ON or OFF.
We’ve been talking about a connected/convergent world for years. The line between online and offline is behind us. I called someone out in a meeting this week suggesting discussion of something ‘in real life’ was different to discussing it online, because digital conversations are just as commonplace as phone calls or physical meetings. They’re the same thing.
What digital frequently lacks, however, is context. Context or suggested appropriateness of conversation topic.
In a meeting room, it’s less appropriate to talk about your plans this weekend than in the pub.
In a pub, it’s less appropriate to talk about your pitch preparation than in the meeting room.
We need better ways of a) letting others know our readiness to receive information and b) filtering information which needs to get through versus information which is just noise or distraction. The simple ‘online/busy/away’ traffic lights of instant messenger aren’t sufficient any more.
We need to develop better context/desire/willingness filters to allow the right sort of content in, rather than shutting the curtains and letting in nothing at all.
It means applying meaningful values to content, and mapping it to context.
It means extending the half-life of real-time content, so it’s still visible after the fact.
It means extending the social graph model to include human information on relationships, not just semantic information (who says I want to hear from my mother?).
It feels like mobile is the best place to start – as it is increasingly the context setter (voice and data, location, integration with calendar, always with you). Products like AwayFind and Google Priority Inbox are already starting to suggest routes – but there is a vast amount of worthwhile exploration in this space.