BONUS: Chapter 1
Chapter 1 – Seeking Balance in a Digital Storm
The day was absolutely perfect. My family and I arrived on the island of Santorini in the middle of the Aegean Sea. If you have never been to this little piece of paradise, I encourage you do so if you get the chance. Sculpted out of one of the earth’s largest-known volcanoes more than 3,500 years ago, Santorini is a small archipelago off the coast of Greece. Layers upon layers of different-color lava rock form ledges of terrain filled with cascading villas leading downward to the ocean. The glistening views from the whitewashed-stone terraces are spectacular, and the sunsets over the volcanic caldera are breathtaking. It has always been one of my most favorite places in the world.
My wife and I, as well as our three children, were making our annual summer escape to the island. But the day wasn’t to be as perfect as I thought. Despite having physically escaped Ontario, there was still a chunk of me that couldn’t leave. I hadn’t checked my e-mail in over forty-eight hours, and I was about to go crazy. All those important messages and pieces of information that I fictionalized in my head were simply sitting in my inbox unattended. But there was another problem: on this exquisite Greek island, amidst the lavish beaches and gentle breeze, I couldn’t get any reception on my BlackBerry.
How was I going to find out what I was missing without connectivity? I needed information, and I had been cut off. I was severed from the digital world!
“Daddy, come play soccer with me,” Charlie, my older son, begged, tapping on my leg.
“Hold on,” I replied. “Give me just a second. I’m trying to get some stock market quotes off my phone.”
“Let’s search for seashells, Daddy,” came another request from Dino, my younger son.
“Can my dolly swim with us?” piped in my daughter, Tia Maria.
“Nick,” my wife Stacy called from a few yards away, “what are you doing? Let’s take a walk down the beach and catch the sunset.”
“Just a second, everybody,” I said, trying to buy some time.
“I think I am getting a signal. I will be done soon.”
I missed the sunset, regarded as one of the most romantic in the world. I missed an opportunity to play soccer, collect seashells and swim in the water. I lost these precious moments with my family on one of the most beautiful islands in the world. For what? For the endless search of knowledge. Or, better yet, for the need to quench my incessant addiction to information. I was held hostage by digital chains. I was craving my data fix as if it were air, food and water, yet in the process I failed to balance the most important things in my life. Think back to the apex of the industrial era circa the mid- 1960s. Steel workers at Dofasco, one of my hometown’s largest employers, would go to the factory when the whistle blew. At day’s end, the whistle would blow again, signaling them to go home. At night the workers would spend time with their families and then enjoy some leisurely pursuits. But when does the whistle blow today? Honestly, the whistle blows only if we shut off our smartphones. Most of us have more attentive relationships with our BlackBerrys than we do with our spouses and friends.
“Good morning, my love. Do you have any e-mails or alerts for me this morning? How’s your battery, sweetheart? Are you feeling well connected?”
The first thing we do when we wake up and the last thing we do before going to bed are check our inboxes. Is it absolutely necessary that we yearn for a quick glimpse just to make sure some juicy piece of information didn’t come across that might suddenly change our lives? Digital devices have crossed all boundaries of our lives, and some of us can’t live without them. While we suffer from the dangers of a crackberry addiction, how do we achieve a healthy work-life balance?
Santorini is actually thought by some historians to be the long-lost island of Atlantis that was written about by Plato in the fourth century BC. A tremendous volcanic eruption left only an island remnant of what was once a thriving Minoan civilization. But eventually Hellenization spread back into the area, and great thinkers and philosophers like Plato, Aristotle and Socrates dreamed of a flourishing utopian society that would be the genesis of civilization. They sought knowledge and wisdom, or what the Greeks referred to as sophos, believing this was the key to progress. Yet there I was, ignoring the things that should have been important to me in exchange for the promises of a handheld device. On one end of the spectrum, I was surrounded by the genesis of civilized culture amidst the azure waters of the Aegean Sea, and on the other end I stood with my BlackBerry raised to the sky, trying to get a signal. Is this what my ancient Greek forefathers envisioned?
Bathing in Bits
The Kaiser Family Foundation recently released a study that found the average young American spends more than seven hours a day using some type of electronic device. Facebook, Twitter, instant messengers and smartphone apps are just the most recent newcomers to the attention-grabbing environment of today. Technological advances have allowed us to be connected constantly to streams of information from around the globe so that we don’t have to miss a binary beat. We are literally bathing ourselves in bits, and some of us are drowning. What drives us to do such a thing? Do we really gain that much more from interfacing with a cold, hard piece of metal than with other people? Some people would say definitely yes. Without question we have entered the knowledge era and left the industrial era and agricultural era behind. No longer do we use our brawn and physical skills to harvest the land. Instead, we use our brains. Without knowledge we are left defenseless. Ignorance carries a huge price tag in the knowledge era. If you’re left out of the loop, it is likely you’re going to be left behind.
The big problem is that most of us have no idea how to filter, organize and prioritize all the information we receive. While much information is useful, we are constantly being bombarded with a huge amount of noise. Junk mail, spam, sales pitches, gossip and propaganda saturate our attention spans. If you were to open up a new Hotmail account today, it would take on average about eight minutes before you received your first spam mail. More than likely it would be about how cheaply you can buy Viagra or about some guy in Nigeria who is in dire need of your financial support. How many of these e-mails do we need?
The bottom line is that we cannot help ourselves. We are so fearful of being left out that we sacrifice things that are important to us simply in order to stay informed. That means we have left the door open for information bombardment to occur. With more than a billion Internet users in the world, there are plenty of eager people to provide you with vast amounts of information—both useful and useless. Unless we learn to get a handle on how to discern the quality of this information and our real need for the information, the negative effects of information bombardment are bound to happen. In fact, they already have.
I didn’t really need to check my inbox on vacation. All of my colleagues knew I was away on holiday. Nothing was pressing whatsoever. Yet this need to know had somehow become more important to me than spending time with my family or even allowing myself to relax. The longer I went without an Internet connection, the more anxious I became. The more anxious I felt, the harder it was to relax and enjoy myself. I had become addicted to knowing the latest and greatest piece of information that might have come across my path. I had allowed my inbox to be more important than anything else. I was bathing in bits and drowning. Meanwhile, my family was starving for another scarce resource.
Today’s Scarcest Resource
In the knowledge era, our attention spans are the scarcest resource. Do I give 100 percent of my attention to my boss as he speaks at a corporate luncheon? Or do I share my attention between him and my e-mails as they come across my BlackBerry? If I share my attention between both, then I get rewarded by being more efficient and more productive. This, in turn, may lead to a promotion or greater opportunities for me. Today, incentives are in place that encourage me to share my attention among different and sometimes competing demands. The amount of time I have doesn’t change, so how can I get more out of time? Easy: split my attention by optimally allocating my priorities. This is more commonly referred to as multitasking.
I have a theory. I believe that one’s age is inversely proportionate to the number of windows that are simultaneously open on one’s desktop computer. For example, my father Harry is a successful accountant who taught himself how to use a computer in his sixties. On an average day at work I have watched him open his Outlook and read e-mails from his clients. Then he closes Outlook to open up a Google search browser to find the phone number of his favorite restaurant on The Danforth (Toronto’s Greek area). Then he closes the browser and opens a media player to listen to Paschalis Terzis (his favorite singer). The peculiar part of this whole process is that only one window is open at a time. In contrast, my first-year university students typically have ten or more windows open simultaneously as they write up their assignments in Word, crunch some numbers in Excel, surf the Web, post photos on Facebook, burn a CD, download an MP3 file, tweet their emotions and more. Over the past couple of generations, the environment has rewarded those who compartmentalize their attention spans into small chunks and multitask. Today, a whole generation of children naturally multitask because it is a sign of the times. They have grown up us digital multitaskers.
But multitasking has had its costs. My children are starving for my attention. My wife spends romantic sunsets on immaculate beaches without me holding her. And, deep down, though I refuse to hear it, a small voice within me is screaming for some exhalation and relaxation. Instead, I choose to give the bulk of my attention to a silicon chip within a plastic case connected to streams of data that I do not even truly need. Like many of you, I have been socialized into feeling that these bits of information are critical to my survival. So I give them my attention while relationships and quality of life suffer. Have you tried cuddling in bed with your BlackBerry lately?
False Promises of Technology
Back in the days of the agricultural era, multigenerational families worked together on farms to grow crops that fed the population. In the early twentieth century, thirty million people provided food for 100 million Americans. But over the ensuing decades, guess what happened? The children of these farming families learned to read, to write and to think. Seemingly overnight, there was an exodus of farm workers as young, bright men and women chose to pursue other professional careers.
Did the world then starve? No. Technology came to the rescue with new farming equipment (e.g., bulldozers, genetically modified seeding systems, and irrigation architecture designed by these newly educated men and women that could more efficiently and effectively assist with food production). By the end of the twentieth century, ten million people could now feed over 300 million Americans. Who could argue that technological advancement wasn’t a good thing?
To a point, innovation is certainly a wonderful thing. However, at some point we begin to give away too much of ourselves in the process. Today, we have satellite and cable television systems that provide us with dozens if not hundreds of channels to sample. We have satellite and Web-based radio that let us choose a specific genre of song anytime we want. Of course, with the help of Google, our ability to search for any answer with the tapping of a few keys places us in the midst of a sea of information. This all sounds good, right?
Let me pose a question to you: Do you think it is simply a coincidence that the rise in ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) over the last thirty years occurred during the same time that society experienced an explosion of information? I don’t. I remember how when I was a kid, there were less than ten channels on our RCA television set. If I wanted to change the channel, I had to get my lazy self off the couch and rotate the dial. As a result, I would endure long segments of time viewing one program without shifting my focus of attention. Today, with a universal remote control in my hand, I find I spend only a few minutes at best on a channel before moving to another. Or, better yet, my kids use the picture-in-picture functionality of a 1080p 3D LED display to watch five channels simultaneously (of the several hundred available) in rich 9.1 Dolby digital surround sound.
The infusion of information into our environments has forced us to share our attention, and it has taught us to become better multitaskers. But in addition it has taught us how to rapidly shift our attention from one item to the next. Did you know that most people can scan an e-mail’s sender and its subject line and decide whether or not to delete it within 1.2 seconds? Pretty cool skill, eh? No one taught us that in school. But while that is extremely efficient, the act enforces brief bursts of attention. It is becoming harder and harder to attain skills in focused and long-lasting periods of concentration. This is the kind of attention my wife and kids are craving.
Why do I keep clicking forward through the television channels even though I find a show that is somewhat intriguing? The answer is the same reason why I am dying to get a signal from my BlackBerry on vacation: I don’t want to miss any little juicy piece of information or entertainment. There is always something better on television than what I am currently watching! Technology has enabled us to have access to vast amounts of variety within multiple forms of communication. Yet without the ability to filter and prioritize this information, the same technology is causing our quality of life to decline.
Technology has always caused paradigms to shift, but some of technology’s promises have not always been true. Do you remember the big promise technology made when the computer replaced the typewriter? “Think of all the paper we will save. Everything will be stored and transferred electronically, so all that waste will disappear. We will all work in paperless offices!” This has hardly been the case. We currently use more than 100 million tons of paper each year in the US alone. When you check in at the airport, in most cases you still must go to a kiosk to print out your boarding pass to get through security. Despite your medical records at your doctor’s office being electronically stored, health-care payers often still require paper documents to justify proposed charges. Instead of saving paper and allowing society to become paperless, electronic technology has done the opposite. Even though we may print out a smaller percentage of the total stored information available, the entire quantity of information has risen exponentially. The end result is that we have more paper floating around than ever before.
While information bombardment and the demands of attention sharing are evident in recent technological advances, technology is also rapidly replacing—or displacing—many areas once thought to be ruled only by the human brain. Stories about machines replacing factory workers are nothing new. Likewise, machines eliminating positions that primarily organize, categorize or distribute products are quite common. But what about machines that can actually think?
In 1997 IBM designed a machine called Deep Blue that successfully competed against the world’s best human chess player. Compared to other computers, its processing power allowed it to calculate up to 200 million chess moves in a second, and it could anticipate all potential permutations up to twenty moves ahead. Garry Kasparov, the reigning world grandmaster, took on Deep Blue in a six-game match. In the end, Deep Blue successfully beat Kasparov after the champion made an early mistake in the last game. It was the first time a machine had ever accomplished this feat.
Do you think it is impossible for computers and their artificial intelligence to surpass the capacity of the brain? Let’s think about this in practical terms for a moment. The brain has approximately 100 billion nerve cells called neurons. At a base level, it is safe to assume that each neuron has a storage capacity of at least one byte of information. That means the average brain can store at least ten gigabytes even before we consider connections between neurons. If you then add the ability to store information between neurons in neural networks, experts estimate the total brain capacity may be as high as 1,000 terabytes (a terabyte is 1,000 gigabytes!). That is a huge amount of storage ability and processing power.
Certainly there is no way a computer processor and storage device could house that much information. Wrong. The Library of Congress and many other large databases are rapidly approaching this figure. Ancestry.com reports a total storage capacity of 600 terabytes after it added US census data from 1790 through 1930 to its online database. Its total figure is rapidly approaching the theorized total brain capacity to hold and process information. It’s no wonder we are beginning to feel the effects of information bombardment. I’m getting a headache just thinking about it.
As nanochips get smaller and the devices we use become more powerful and faster, it is likely that these devices will begin interacting and communicating amongst themselves. Not only will we have information from other people to digest but we will also have an entire new body of artificial intelligence to keep up with. Think about it: is your life better as a result of all the technology around you? Or has it simply provided a way with which to bombard you with more information in a shorter amount of time? If quality of life is truly better, then we should all be enjoying the pleasures and sunsets of Santorini.
Information and Your Health
Ever since the development of the Internet, a great deal of buzz has been publicized about being informed about your own health. You should know about any disorders you have, the side effects of your medications, your family history and more. An informed patient knows the right questions to ask his or her doctor before they even meet. Yet the ironic thing is that information itself is one of the biggest health risks today. Our constant thirst for information places demands on us mentally that affect us over the long term.
Did you know that thirty percent of the population in all industrialized societies suffers from some type of insomnia? Almost one in every three people! More than ninety percent of these people cannot sleep because of stresses occurring in their lives. They may have had a recent emotional loss or experienced some type of trauma. But many simply are struggling to keep up with all the information they contend with each day.
As a management professor at the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University, I have my own share of deadlines to meet and pressures with which to contend. But through it all, I am constantly available to give my attention to my BlackBerry or computer should instant messaging, e-mail or video conferencing requests arrive. What I didn’t realize was the amount of mental energy it took to be so constantly vigilant. When it came time to go to bed at night, coming off this digital high was nearly impossible.
The chemical released in our bodies when we are so hypervigilant is called adrenaline. Adrenaline is great for situations when you must fight and defend yourself or escape a hostile situation, but to be in a constant state of adrenalization is not a good thing. In addition to causing you not to sleep, being constantly adrenalized can lead to anxiety disorders, high blood pressure and even heart disease. Information bombardment doesn’t only affect your social relationships; it can affect your physical and mental health as well.
Are you working to live or living to work? A balance between working and personal time is important in order to be healthy, but the number of people actually paying attention to this balance is shrinking every day. That doesn’t mean that constant information-seeking isn’t important in today’s knowledge era, but there needs to be a happy medium to be maximally productive.
In the US, most employees get two weeks of vacation a year, but most of us don’t even take that. In contrast, many Mediterranean countries take six weeks of vacation a year. In Greece, the entire month of August is a time for relaxing and leisure. No wonder why, when my family travels to Santorini, all the people there have smiles on their faces. The goal is to work smarter, not harder.
Vacation and leisure time have to be part of our priorities. Yes, sometimes we just have to turn the BlackBerry and the computer off. We clearly forget that all of these machines can be unplugged! That sounds pretty scary, eh? But in order to succeed in the knowledge era, we will need to find this balance in order to maximize overall productivity and quality of life. It’s time to unleash the digital chains that bits and bytes have over us and take back control of our lives.
My mother, Despina, spends almost every waking moment of her summer months tending to her lovely garden. She has a fantastic green thumb that is the envy of all of her neighbors. In fact, some budding horticulturists in the community have visited her simply to get advice on what flowers they should plant in their own gardens. My mother is always willing to part with her wisdom, which she has cultivated over several decades. In her case, the beauty of her knowledge is like the beauty of her garden: it is always more valuable when shared with others.
Knowledge or Null Edge?
Here is a fact: knowledge is power. We use it to wield authority over people, groups, communities and even nations. We need it to succeed in our personal lives and in the workplace. The boundaries of geography and physical limitations no longer apply. Knowledge goes beyond these constraints and encompasses an ever-expanding body of information that is increasing at exponential rates. But as knowledge expands, time does not. This leaves us having to decide how best to manage the information with which we are bombarded and to which fragments to lend our precious attention spans.
I see us at a crossroads of sorts, or perhaps the edge of a cliff would be a better analogy. Each of us is confronted with endless bits of data second to second—the current temperature outside, the forecast for tomorrow, the exchange rate, the stock market level and whatever else we want to know. We thrive on it and have become dependent on it. But the costs have reached a point where we are suffering in the quagmire. Is it all necessary? Must we have it all at our fingertips right now? We obviously survived without it before, yet now we eagerly yearn for it and digest it bit by byte. All the while, our families, our friends and our health pay the consequences. This is the place I call null edge.
We can choose to embrace the knowledge era and gain control over the information bombardment that attacks us from every angle, or we can fall off the edge of the cliff and drown in an ocean of data. The digital chains of information bombardment will drag us over the edge unless we begin to prioritize and discern what is most important.
There is an old adage that states that when you are young, you have plenty of time but no money; when you are middleaged you have money but little time; and only when you are elderly do you have both money and time. I don’t think this has to be true. I am often shocked when I hear colleagues complain that they have little time to do task A or B. It is the number-one complaint I hear in the workplace. Under my breath, I basically scoff at how poorly they are allocating their attention spans. One of the main objectives in my life is to maximize wealth and quality of life while minimizing energy expended. This is what we all want, isn’t it?
I have been to Santorini many times now, but my vacations are much different from before. I still check my e-mail periodically, but I don’t let information control my life. I take in the treasures that the island has to offer and think about what my Greek ancestors might have thought as they walked on the same beaches, swam in the same seas and watched the same sunsets. Could they ever have fathomed that our world would exist as it does today? Would they believe the magnitude of information each of us deals with on a daily basis? Despite all of this progress in technology, and despite bathing in bits and bytes, are we really better off?
No matter how you answer these questions, the fact remains that we all have to deal with information bombardment, and how this is done affects all of us at different levels. We now have no choice. We must do something about this yesterday. If not, we are in for dire consequences. On a personal level, our family lives and our health will be harmed. In groups and organizations, efficiency, productivity and profitability are at stake. Our nations and the global community continue to pay a high price. Information bombardment has already lead to catastrophic disasters like the failure to prevent 9/11 or to assist families quickly enough during Hurricane Katrina or the earthquake in Haiti. These are very real practical implications.
So what can we do? Plenty. But in order to understand how to tackle information bombardment, we first have to understand how we got to this point in our history. Our knowledge base hasn’t been steadily progressing through the generations. In fact, we have entered an exponential period of information explosion never before experienced. Unless we start to develop the tools with which to manage ourselves in the knowledge era, we indeed may be looking to an era of null edge. The choice is ours.