I recently read two blog post commentaries on Nick Carr's The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. One by Andy McAfee, Tune Out, Turn Off: A Mantra Needed for Our Times?, and another by Doris Nhan, Live from #gc2011: Nicholas Carr on how the Internet is hurting innovation. Carr’s book provides his research on how technology and the Internet have affected people’s ability to process information in a negative way. He argues that we are losing our ability to concentrate because of the Web. And I thought it was my advancing years. But I digress. Before I add my comments let me summarize what Andy and Doris wrote.
Andy said that he was first a skeptic but as he read Carr’s book and “reflected about my own habits, though, I started to get the uneasy feeling that he was on to something fundamental.” He adds that the 2.0 Era has put us put us immediately in touch with friends, family, colleagues, and strangers through easy to use software on the Web and increasingly available and portable hardware devices for access. Andy notes that this can be addictive and I would agree. Andy supports Nick’s claims that this also takes us away from deep thinking. His remedy is tune out and turn off but not before you provide your comments to his blog post. I did both in the order he suggested.
I have long been convinced of the need to gain a sense of isolation to concentrate, at least for me. I have always liked to work at home, starting as an academic in the 70s. I went to the office to meet with colleagues and students but my thought work was done at home away from those distractions. Now I have come full circle as I mostly work at home but maintain a very active business social life outside the home. For me it is having control over when I want to concentrate and when I want to be social. For this reason I schedule phone calls rather than have people call me whenever. The Web also allows for this option because it is available for virtual socializing when I want it but I can also turn away.
Doris Nhan goes a step further in her discussions about Nick Carr’s book by offering some specific suggestions from Nick for work that align with my own thoughts above. She writes that “to regain a much-needed balance, Carr suggests dedicating time specifically for the Internet and time specifically for focused attention on one task.” I would certainly agree. This is what I do. I often turn to the social aspects of the Web as a break from focused work just as people might go to the water cooler or the coffee room in an office environment.
Nick also suggests that, “companies need to challenge the assumption that employees should always be available. Some people do their best work when they’re disconnected, and companies should create a work culture that encourages it.” Ahem. I have long believed in this. For example, I never liked IM. When required to use it by one employer, I just had my status always set at busy. When I finally got a cell phone in the late 90s, it took me a year to discover that the incoming call function was broken as I only used it for outbound calls. I still give out my office number rather than my cell number, except for specific situations like meeting someone. I know I may be extreme but it is my way for maintaining control over my social presence and my knowledge consumption so that I can accomplish the thought work I need to do like write this blog post.
There does need to be a balance. I do expect someone to always be available when I need help with my computer but then I would not assign these call center people with the additional task of developing the company’s strategic plan while on call center duty. The bottom line is creating a pull rather than push situation and the Web does allow us to use it this away if we choose to operate in this mode. Now it is easier for me as I am working part time on many assignments and mostly working from home. I think that companies need to give their employees that same freedom if they want innovation and real productivity in thought work. Granted someone needs to mind the store but someone also needs to be determining where to take the store next. This is why you have a team.