Slaves to the smartphone, hyperconnectivity & FOMO

IBM are pushing their Smarter Planet thinking across our TVs, it’s all about how we use data, how we collaborate, all to do with increasingly smarter smartphones, hyperinterconnectivity (© me!) and social media becoming mainstream. There’s no doubt the digital world is becoming smaller, flatter and smarter. However, because of this I think I’ve got FOMO addiction – Fear Of Missing Out.

I’ve come to the conclusion that I use email to distract myself. Whenever I feel the least bit uneasy, I check my email. Stuck while writing a report? Bored on a phone call? Standing in a lift, frustrated in a meeting, anxious about an outstanding proposal? Might as well check email. It’s an ever-present, easy-access way to avoid my feelings of discomfort.

What makes it so compelling is that it’s so compelling. I wonder what’s waiting for me in my inbox? It’s scintillating. I need to make sure I don’t miss an important message or fail to respond in a timely fashion.

But it’s become a serious problem. When we don’t control our email habit, we are controlled by it. Everyone I know complains about email overload. Email pours in, with no break to its flow, and like addicts, we check it incessantly, drawing ourselves away from meetings, conversations, personal time, or whatever is right in front of us. If we don’t check-in, we have increasing levels of anxiety. It’s FOMO!

But yesterday, without access to my email, it was just the opposite. I gained presence throughout my day, focused on what was around me in the moment, without distraction. I listened more attentively, noticed people’s subtle reactions I would otherwise overlook, and came up with more ideas as my mind wandered. I was more productive, more sensitive, more creative, and happier. How bonkers was that?!

Smart devices are empowering, they put a world of information at our fingertips, they free us to work from home instead of squeezing onto a train with malodorous strangers. Smartphones can also promote efficiency by allowing people to get things done in spare moments that would otherwise be wasted, such as while queuing for coffee or sat on a train.

But for most people the servant has become the master. Not long ago only doctors were on call all the time, now everybody is. Managers think nothing of invading their employees’ free time, and work invades the home. Otherwise sane people check their smartphones obsessively and send e-mails first thing in the morning and last thing at night (note to self….).

This is partly because smartphones are addictive. Martin Lindstrom, a branding guru, identified the ten sounds that affect people the most – he found that a vibrating phone came third – ahead of a giggling baby. BlackBerrys and iPhones provide relentless stimuli interspersed with rewards. Whenever you check the device there is a fair chance you will see a voice mail, a text message, a WhatsApp update or a Nigerian gentleman offering you $1m if you share your bank details with him.

Hyper connectivity exaggerates some of the most destabilising trends in the modern workplace. Employees find it ever harder to distinguish between ‘on-time’ and ‘off-time’. Executives are lumbered with two overlapping workdays: a formal one full of meetings and an informal one spent trying to keep up with the torrent of e-mails and messages.

How can we reap the benefits of connectivity without becoming its slaves? One solution is digital dieting. Just as the abundance of junk food means we have to be more disciplined about our eating habits, so the abundance of junk information means we should be more disciplined about our browsing habits.

The problem with this approach is that it works only if you live on a desert island or at the bottom of a lake. In Sleeping with Your Smartphone, Leslie Perlow of Harvard Business School argues that for most people the only way to break the 24/7 habit is to act collectively rather than individually. She tells the story of how one of the world’s most hard-working organisations, the Boston Consulting Group, learned to manage hyper connectivity better. The firm introduced rules about when people were expected to be offline, and encouraged them to work together to make this possible. Many macho consultants mocked the exercise at first – surely only wimps switch off their smartphones? – but eventually it forced people to work more productively while reducing burnout.

The problem of hyper connectivity will only get worse, as smartphones become smarter and young digital natives take over the workforce. People are handing ever more of their lives over to their phones, you can now download personal assistants (such as Apple’s Siri) that tell you what is on your schedule, and virtual personal trainers that urge you take more exercise. Ofcom, Britain’s telecommunications regulator, says that a startling 60% of teenagers who use smartphones describe themselves as highly addicted to their devices, and 37% of adults. The faster smartphones become and the more alluring the apps that are devised for them, the stronger the addiction will grow.

Sherry Turkle’s research in Alone Together studies the relationship between people and technology – how does technology change our ways of seeing ourselves and the world? Turkle is Professor of Social Studies of Science & Technology at MIT and the founder of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. She’s written three books, all good reads, all available for Kindle (now there’s another social change driven by technology).

She brings up the question of solitude. What happens to our solitude when we are able to get responses to anything and are expected to provide responses in turn, 24/7? What happens to our sense of dissent when everything we say and do online bears a trace? She points out how important privacy is to dissent, and if we have no place where we can think and act unseen, we end up policing ourselves and censoring our own thoughts. We tame and restrain ourselves, knowing that anything we do and say may end up “out there” forever. Do we really want to give up privacy online?

Turkle understands the complexities of technologies, she suggests that the touch of a human hand is indeed different from a robot’s, that a handwritten letter is different from a text, that thinking and remembering have value even when it seems there’s no more time for them. I won’t give away the ending, but it left me with a surprising sadness, as though in a cinema, when it’s over and the place is dark, and you sit there for a few minutes, stunned, before getting up and walking out into the blink-provoking street. Turkle also focuses on about people who fear they are missing out and the increasing debate about what new technologies and increased connectivity are doing to our brains, and a chilling examination of what our iPods and iPads are doing to our relationships.

Turkle argues that people are increasingly functioning without face-to-face contact. For all the talk of convenience and connection derived from texting, e-mailing, and social networking, Turkle reaffirms that what humans still instinctively need is each other. She makes a strong case that what was meant to be a way to facilitate communications has pushed people closer to their machines and further away from each other. She paints a sobering and paradoxical portrait of human disconnectedness in the face of expanding virtual connections.

We are so connected with one another through our Twitter streams, our Facebook and LinkedIn updates, that we can’t just be alone anymore. The FOMO is so intense, the fear of missing out on something or someone that might just be more interesting or exciting or better than what we’re currently doing – even when we’ve decided to disconnect, we still connect just once more, just to make sure.

When is downtime, when is stillness? The digital-driven world of rapid response and always-on does not make self-reflection impossible, but does little to cultivate it. The devices have created a need for instant gratification and solace. Nobody can wait anymore, not because they can’t – but because they don’t need to. It’s an impulse control problem, in other words, an addiction. Count how many times you check your email or smartphone for messages, texts, status updates, etc. in a day. 10? 50? 100? You may be surprised.

The reality is that there are few things so truly important in life, they can’t wait. Sure, I understand it if you’re the President of the United States or Simon Cowell that you have a legitimate reason to check your texts during dinner. But everyone else, not so much. We’re succumbing to our FOMO when we do so.

It’s easy for us to convince ourselves that the problem is an individual addiction, or at the other end of the spectrum, to blame the culture in which we live. While both are clearly part of the problem, the real answer lies somewhere else. When I email you late at night and you respond, I come to expect that you will regularly respond at that late hour. Meanwhile, you derive some satisfaction from your diligence. Equally, if we won’t get a response, we either feel anxious, let down or irritated. Together, we perpetuate and amplify expectations of each other and ourselves, making our own more intense, more overwhelming, more demanding, and less fulfilling than they need to be.

FOMO is a very real feeling that’s starting to permeate through our social relationships. The question is will we ever settle for what we have, rather than cling to the fear that we may be missing out on something better?