Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Why does the man who led IBM’s Watson Project advocate technology timeouts?

Manoj Saxena is a man heavily immersed in technology. For many years he ran IBM’s famed Watson project. Today he is a successful venture capitalist and seeds many more technology companies encompassing the next wave of technology and innovation.
So, why then is he advocating that in the tech companies he now runs, staff have mandatory unplug days? A technologist preaching technology time outs? Blasphemous!

On the face of it, this may appear strange. But it is really not. In fact, it appears surprisingly well thought out. On predetermined holidays/dates his companies go into electronic silence. No emails, no texts, not even phone calls for work. Just time to relax, rejuvenate and reconnect with family and friends. Manoj postulates we – all of us – are rapidly approaching an electronic saturation point. Like others, he believes that the always-on and connected mantra is no longer the panacea it may have appeared to be. It is taking a toll. He wants to go even further and extend the technology moratorium to at least one of the weekend days, if not both.
This sentiment is shared with many other technologists including none other than Steve Jobs. Steve was apparently a self-described “low-tech” parent who restricted his own kids’ access to technology for some of the same reasons. In fact Jobs had such strong reservations about allowing his kids unfettered and perpetual access to technology that he confessed that his wife and kids accused him of being a fascist! The man who may have single-handedly brought touchscreens into our lives, had serious concerns about the long-term effects of engaging in touchscreen technology for extended periods of time. According to Walter Isaacson who spent many hours in the Job’s household while writing his book, face-to-face family time came before any screen time. No iPads were permitted at the dining table.
The always connected life-style takes many tolls – from cost to productivity to creativity. Every economics student knows that switching involves cost. Today, when multi-tasking with technology has become a virtual epidemic, why would we think it has no adverse effect?
Erica Fox, the best-selling author and Harvard professor recently wrote an excellent piece titled “Is Never Offline, good for business and life?” where she was reacting to the recent Time Magazine cover “Never offline”. She rightly points out that those who are never offline spend too much time reacting and not enough solving problems. They make decisions in a “frenzied and buzzing state of mind”. They are also becoming less and less familiar with focused attentive work and face-to-face relationships.
In a landmark report, Gloria Mack of the University of California at Irvine, found that typically a person in an office experiences a paltry 11 minutes before an interruption. And it then takes an average of 25 minutes before that person can return to the original task! What is the quality of work with such rapid and incessant switching generally driven by technology?
New research from the Carnegie Mellon University’s Human-Computer Interaction Lab shows that if you try to do two things at the same time, both things suffer! They found that the distraction of an interruption turned test takers in their lab to become on average of 20 percent dumber. It was enough to turn a B-minus student (80 percent) into a failure (62 percent).
According to Stanford sociologist, Clifford Nass,who conducted some of the first tests into the effects of multi-tasking, those who cannot resist doing two things at the same time are “suckers for irrelevancy”.  Apparently, we are not just suckers for that new text message or email, but it is actually making us stupid.
All this should concern organizations of every type. According to the WSJ, distractions cost companies money. One survey in 2011 found that businesses might be losing as much as $ 10,000 per employee every year due to distractions and poorly designed technology. Many among us answer every instant message, email or text at the very moment it arrives. And yet, how many companies have programs where employees are being counselled on the impact of multi-tasking and its effect on the company’s bottom line? Or how to manage the multiple avenues for interruption we all face in any office today?
In a recent book just released this September, “The Organized Mind”, Daniel Levitin (a professor of psychology at McGill University) explores many facets of our lives under the stress of information overload and multi-tasking. According to Prof. Levitin, multi-tasking puts us into a dopamine-addiction loop which is similar to cocaine addiction. Each time we do a new small task, our brains reward us with a tiny shot of dopamine, which is the chemical in our brains responsible for pleasure. He quotes a famous study in the 1950s where rats were given the opportunity to press a bar to get a shot of dopamine. Soon they were pressing the bar to the exclusion of everything including eating, drinking, sleeping and even sex! They died of starvation and dehydration. Levitin strongly suggests that we spend time away from our devices otherwise it will become like any other addiction.

So should we all abandon our devices? Not exactly.
According to Marshall Van Alstyne, an associate professor at Boston University and MIT, be very cautious about technologies like social media and those which interrupt you constantly, because that interruption dramatically reduces productivity. The solution, according to him, is to batch time and tasks. So, rather than checking your email every time the notification appears – turn the notification off, and check email once every hour or couple of hours. Don’t interrupt your research paper or memo every time the phone dings and informs you that someone has sent you a text. Turn the ding off. 
Manoj, Steve Jobs (and many other technology luminaries) are right. They were involved with the creation of the technologies which may have resulted in our distracted way of life. Many now recommend we need to adjust, and are calling for technology time-outs and less multi-tasking. They should know. And unlike many of us, some of them are actually doing something about it.