Sunday, June 19, 2011

Sunday Essay - technology, time and modern life

With my own computer still out of action, I am really missing my bookmarks. I had well over 200 blogs bookmarked, broken up by various categories. They were old friends and a constant source of ideas.
I haven't had a links section on this blog because of the sheer numbers involved. There was also an issue involved in just keeping the list current given the attrition rate among blogs. However, I now face an obvious problem.
My practice of running regular reviews of other people's blogs means that I can recreate the list to a substantial degree even if my current box cannot be fixed. However, I do need to have the list in a form independent of my own equipment. The logical thing would be to create a links page, although I do shudder at the work involved.

As a first step, I have started a links page, New England Australia blogs, on my New England blog. I am just listing blogs alphabetically, along with a brief description. If I do this for all my special interest blogs, then I can add links to those lists to the equivalent page on this blog.
With my own computer out of action, I have also taken the forced opportunity to do some tidying up. As part of this, I collected all my computer disks in one place from floppies to CDs to drives. There are hundreds, most now unusable.

Now all this in fact links to an earlier post, Living in a just in time world. I have become technology dependent.

There is no doubt that the new technologies are efficient. I can do more things and do them faster. Information is at my finger tips.  I can edit and re-edit. The days of typing and white-out are long past. Yet what to we do when things go wrong? What do we do when a simple change in technology effectively destroys past material? And how is the technology affecting the way we think?

I can already hear someone muttering about the need for back-ups as a necessary protection, and that's true. Yet back-ups on their own are not enough, as evidenced by all my dead disks. Software itself decays or is made redundant. Hardware changes. Remember the big old floppies?

Since I started using computers, I must have used more than a dozen word processing programs, counting the variants of Word as different programs. Ever heard of Olitext? No, I didn't think so. We used that for our first major reports.

One of my big problems is that I get so busy doing that I forget to do some of the most basic housekeeping. I am not alone.

Take most organisations. You have all these people preparing documents, sending and receiving emails. They do so without any attention to the most basic information architecture. The focus is on do now, not what will we need later? Document variants proliferate, basic information is recorded in emails left disconnected from the supporting documents, centralised files are replaced by individual folders used for working purposes.

All this is fine, but we have actually substituted immediate efficiency for longer term inefficiency. But then, who actually thinks of the longer term anyway? After all, we almost certainly won't be there, having moved on. Further, we actually penalise proper record keeping in that time spent on that activity is generally not seen as productive, is not measured and assessed as part of the proliferation of targets, indicators and activities.

We all know that our activities have physical effects on our bodies.

Farmers, for example, often have bad backs from lifting. In my case, I have hearing loss in both ears that can be directly traced to a time when I spent hours on the phone with the phone held to the ear by my shoulder so that I could write. After a while my ear would begin to hurt, so I would shift the phone to the other ear. Normally this hearing deficiency doesn't worry me, although I am finding it increasingly difficult to cope in restaurants with bare floors and lots of background din. I don't think that I'm alone here, mind you!

But what about the mental effects of the way we do things?

Taking farmers again. Country people are believed to be more slow spoken and indeed they often are. There is just not the same pressure to chatter. In similar vein, when I first went to New York I was struck by the faster language. They talked just like the sitcoms!

The new technologies are clearly having an affect on human thinking, one that I have spoken about. It's also one that I find quite difficult to manage at a purely personal level.

Let me start with a simple practical example.

I use the technology quite intensively. I blog, I facebook, I tweet. I am quite expert at the use of the web to gather information, aided by my own general knowledge. If you look at some of the posts I have written, they are equivalent in length and indeed depth to an academic essay. I am not being pretentious when I say this, just reasonably accurate. Yet they take me less than ten per cent of the time to write as compared to my student past.

In a week now, I can actually produce the equivalent in output of an entire university unit. That's good in a way, but there is a real downside.

As I write now, I have email, facebook and twitter open. I see from twitter that Denis Wright appears to have had an alien experience. Attention caught, I look. While writing, two emails have arrived; I look.

On Facebook, Neil Whitfield continues his fulminations against smoking. In doing so, he appears to quote what is, on the surface, an especially egregious piece of special pleading on plain paper packaging. Checking, it deals with the US. It may still be egregious, but I don't have time to properly read and respond. I also note that Neil has added an anti-smoking logo to his Facebook entries; I find myself distracted and annoyed.

I am not an exponent of smoking, by the way. I am just a smoker who might have given up a long time where I not so annoyed by what I perceive to be the anti-smoking Nazis. I accept that's irrational, but it (the way the anti-smoking campaigns work) seem to me to be part of an overall pattern of behaviour that I dislike.

Now that's a sidetrack, but it's one that exactly illustrates my point. I feel that I need to keep in touch, but am constantly being distracted. This adversely affects my real work output.

I am not alone. The disease of email responsiveness is deeply embedded. I see people whose life is absolutely ruled by email. A blackberry has moved from something that's nice to eat to a feral menace. Still, that's a bit like what happened to the original blackberry in the Australian bush!

I am not alone in feeling this. Just as I am trying to change my own approach, so many firms are altering their approach to the management of email traffic. Some of those responses are purely reactive, part of the modern concern with risk. Others are more fundamental - specific campaigns against email dependence, including email free periods.

However, the problems go deeper than this. One major side-effect is an inability to focus for extended periods, to simply think. We are all so busy just doing.

Another problem is the substitution of the visual, the short, the power point, the spread sheet, for real thought.

We have government policy statements where the visual wall paper totally out-weighs the content. We have spread sheets where people simply accept the results without challenging the assumptions on which the analysis is based. We have pretty powerpoints with special features all designed to sell and explain something that no-one has really thought out. But you just try asking basic questions: the discomfort and dislike is quite palpable!

As I finish, I am surrounded by noise. My wife is watching a Sunday TV political program. The dishwasher is going. The Australian's Piers Akerman has just finished a question with "so forth". The ABC's Fran Bailey is muttering about leadership or the lack there-of. My wife has just called Mr Akerman a dickhead.

Three tweets have arrived; one suggests that the TV program my wife is watching has become unwatchable. I have to agree. Piers is accusing Fran of having a green aversional view.

I can no longer concentrate. Anyway, I have to cook lunch!


Anonymous said...

Hi Jim

Just so's you know I occasionally follow your links:

Dear Mr Whitfield

I came over to your blog to see what you might have lately ranted about tobacco, because it always amuses to see the newly reformed try to expunge the non-reformed from the earth – whatever the cause.

But I hit a post with GetUp Australia as header, so I ‘read with interest’ (as the SMH letter writers say), and there good as bold, is my own poor offering – with Jim’s comment hovering somewhere between agreement and dissociation.

Do me a favour – go to GetUp’s disclosure page, and try any of the financial links, and see if they work for you. Do me another favour – divorce for a moment the thought that “it’s all in a good cause”, and – ask yourself if it’s ok for a non-profit entity reliant for 80% of its funds from mums and dads, and doctors’ wives, and people who would vote for world peace, and idealistic young people, to hand over bits and pieces of their hard earned to an entity which, as far as I can see, is basically unanswerable to either its “members” (click here, give an email address) or 80% of its donors (50,000 of them!)

By emailing, and finally ringing them I’ve now actually got both 2008 and 2009 annual reports – and neither tells me anything about either the donations received, or the expenditure made for any of their campaigns. By emailing and ringing I was finally told that the reason the various pdfs don’t download is that they are “optimised for Google Chrome”. If you accept that you are far sillier than you usually appear.

Ann Coombs said it’s all about “radical transparency” – reference available – but as far as this old accountant is concerned, it’s basically about a few young idealists having a grand old time at the expense of now several hundred thousand innocents who just want to feel good about themselves; that they “did something”.

And who is Ann Coombs? Well as far as I can tell she is one of 12 people or trade unions who are disclosed as providing 20% of the funds for GetUp. And further, in her own words, she believes “any social mobilisation is going to require rigorous leadership, no matter how democratic its goals. It may be that intelligent political engagement will always be a minority sport”.

Mr Whitfield, I would support some, but not all, of GetUp’s campaigns. But I’d feel much more comfortable doing so if there was a readily available accounting of what monies were raised, and what was spent, on each of their campaigns. And I’ve re-read my comment which you part quoted; and I think that while you used to be an amusing fool, you are now simply being fooled.


Neil said...

Your wife has good taste!

Feel free to smoke, Jim. I am not going to ostracise those who are still addicted, ;)

I stand by my addition at Facebook, though it won't be permanent I suspect. But I will keep it longer now, I suspect. You will see it has spread to WordPress too. It is a statement about my own resolution to make this quit stick having failed eventually so often before.

I responded to the comment before this on my own blog. I was most upset by its patronising tone.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jim

I've been trying politely to get Mr Whitfield to actually engage with my simple comment that GetUp would be better served by being more 'radically transparent'. But no luck, it seems.

I really like this quote:

“any social mobilisation is going to require rigorous leadership, no matter how democratic its goals. It may be that intelligent political engagement will always be a minority sport”.

(Ann Coombs - Griffith Review, Edition 24)

But maybe you can actually access GetUp's reports? Not to worry - I can send you 08 and 09 if not successful. And they will tell you nothing.


Jim Belshaw said...

Hey chaps, I don't want to see two of my favourite blog connected people in dispute.

Neil, I greatly respect your success in giving up smoking and support the decision. I think that I said that earlier.

David, you make good general points on GetUp, but the exchange with Neil really has little to do with those points, at least in my humble opinion.