Technology means we’re always somewhere else

Technology means we’re always somewhere else
Scottish Review, by Ronnie Smith
June 2012

I once made the mistake of bravely continuing with a sales presentation to the finance department of a large shared-services company while my audience was consumed by the need to check their emails, spreadsheets and surf the internet. I should, of course, have ended the meeting and walked out as soon as I saw them shuffling into the room with their laptops under their arms. However, they were a delicate group with minimal social skills and, in those days, I was inclined not to offend potential clients even when I found myself talking to the tops of their heads.
I and a group of colleagues took a business partner from another company to dinner and then a bar one evening so that he could watch his team play in the Champions League. Unfortunately, he missed the entire match and took no part in any conversation with us because he simply could not take his eyes or fingers away from his BlackBerry. Even though his expressionless face was no more than three feet away from mine, I considered sending him a sms to ask if he was having a good time…Incidentally he was a finance person too, so perhaps there is a direct link between Asperger’s syndrome and the accounting profession.
One of the most depressing sights that I see these days, whether in business or social life, occurs when I sit down at a restaurant and watch my companions place their phones in front of them on the table. I immediately know that I am in for a lunchtime or evening of broken, mistimed conversations and wasted jokes because they will be afflicted by the BlackBerry twitch, a disease that sees them looking at or grasping their handsets every few minutes in search of a sms or an email from someone, anyone, who is not me and is decidedly somewhere else. Even when they find time to join in what conversation there is, their contribution is halting and disjointed as they try to remember the point of their story while reading the latest update on their all-important screen.
I’ve even seen people getting the point of my vicious stare by putting their phones into their bags or suit pockets…only to retrieve them desperately, clearly distressed, a few moments later.
Our growing obsession with smart phones and tablets now enables us to be in many places at once with a wide range of people. In other words, we are no longer ‘here’. We might attend a presentation but while we are in communication with – reading from, writing too and thinking about – our colleagues and friends elsewhere, we may only understand around 50% of it. We may participate in important meetings or social events that are crucial to the development of our careers and friendships but we may be so distracted by immediate news from colleagues and friends elsewhere, delivered by sms, email or social media facilities that we completely miss what’s going on right in front of us.
What we may collectively call personal communication technology, poorly managed, is destroying our capacity to concentrate on being where we are and focusing on who we are with. It is having a very negative effect on our ability to communicate effectively in both our business and personal relationships. At best, we are perceived as being extremely rude. At worst, we are making very bad judgements and decisions because we are not focused on the here and now because we can always be somewhere else. The sad thing is that many of us seem to want to be somewhere else and not where we are.
In the longer term, we may be losing vital human communication skills as we charge toward a much greater use of electronic communication which may comprise only text or small-screen sight and sound. We are missing the crucial and vital indications provided by voice inflection, facial expression and body language. Sometimes tiny things which, if misread or missed completely, can even lead to life-changing personal or commercial disasters.
In Buddhism there is a practice called ‘Mindfulness’ in which you focus entirely on everything surrounding the one thing you are doing at the time, even if it is something as simple as washing dishes. In this case you concentrate on the warmth of the water, the shape and texture of the crockery or cutlery, the actions of the detergent on the stains, the patterns painted on the plates or carvings on the knives and forks, everything. You do not think about any external activity or allow any external thought to disrupt your concentration. Like meditation, Mindfulness is an exercise intended to enhance concentration and develop mental discipline.
We don’t all need to become Buddhists but I fear we need to do something because, even from my limited experience, I can tell you that we are losing it.