In the span of the last three weeks, I was out of cell tower reach in the outlands of Canada, switched to a new laptop and bought a Kindle. What do all these minor events have in common?
The paradox of technology that ensures (insists?) that we be connected at all times to everything, everywhere is that there is little escaping all of that connectivity. We fall victim to that impulse to check e-mails and text messages at every opportunity, regardless of what else is going on around us. Even worse, so egalitarian is the data stream coming at us, it has a leveling effect — elevating the mundane to the urgent and drowning the urgent in the morass. (The next time you see someone glance down at their smartphone in a board meeting, client session or even at a movie, I rest my case.)
In Canada, I was in one of those grayed-out zones you ignore on the wall map when you buy your calling plan — who would ever go there? Given my expressed commitment to return client phone calls within two hours, I made good use of a landline, but each call had a purpose and a known and accepted priority. The rest of the time, I found myself actually looking around the place and its spectacular albeit stark beauty, rather than peering at a 3-inch screen.
I switched to a new Mac Book Pro laptop last week and discovered a certain delight in choosing to not automatically transfer all of my old files to the new computer. Data does not weigh anything, but there is a metaphorical burden with carrying around all that old information just for that scant situation where you might need it. Instead, I started lean and clean, and promising myself to exercise some new discipline in what I keep and discard – essentially reassigning a relative worth to information. Such a hierarchy separates data from information from knowledge from wisdom. The higher you go up that chain, the quieter it gets.
The Kindle decision involved me painstakingly scrutinizing the specs and the reviews comparing the Kindle with the iPad (ah, the Paradox of Choice in practice). Without provoking a debate here about which is “better,” it simply struck me that I wanted to read. Not access information, not be seduced into skimming over all the things I could do on the iPad that could not be done on the more pedestrian Kindle. Reading, to me, is not just an exercise of information access and retrieval. It is an entirely different experience – to get away, get absorbed in one pursuit without distraction, to invest in one experience for what it is, rather than treating it with the same impulsive impatience as we do a TV remote.
The speed, power and access afforded by “the cloud” holds a crucial place in our business lives. We ought not to delude ourselves, though, that it most often saves time or improves the quality of most decisions or interactions. The time “saved” is quickly filled, and often filled with things that might never have commanded our time in the first place.
All this technology is indispensible, but it is not inescapable.
That power remains with us. Unless we give it away.