Designing Our Lives for the Networked Age

For three decades I’ve written about the challenges of thriving in the information shower of the Digital Age. But today something extraordinary is happening: the continuous quantitative changes are becoming a qualitative change. Information and computing technologies are moving on to “the second half of the chessboard”—a clever phrase coined by American inventor and author Ray Kurzweil. He told a story about the emperor of China, who was so delighted with the game of chess that he offered the game’s inventor any reward he desired. The inventor asked for rice. “I would like one grain of rice on the first square of the chessboard, two grains of rice on the second square, four grains of rice on the third square, and so on, all the way to the last square,” he said. Thinking this would add up to a couple of bags of rice, the emperor happily agreed. He was misguided. While small at the outset, the amount of rice escalated to more than two billion grains halfway through the chessboard. The final square would require nine billion billion grains of rice—enough to cover all of earth.

After decades of doubling and redoubling, we’re now achieving gargantuan leaps in all facets of information tech­nologies, such as processing power, storage capacity and bandwidth. Examples are everywhere, from Intel’s computer chips to low-cost consumer electronics. When the MP3 player debuted in 1998 it stored less than a dozen songs. Now 160­gigabyte iPods store 40,000 songs.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt noted that between the dawn of civilization and 2003 there were five exabytes of data collected (an exabyte equals one quintillion bytes). Today five exabytes of data gets collected every two days. Soon there will be five exabytes every few minutes. It’s an understatement to say that we’re in danger of drowning.

But there is more to this than information overload. Because of the mobile Internet and the rise of pervasive com­puting, the shower continues all day long. Soon everything will be constantly connected to the Internet, including us. The growing number of little gadgets we carry will soon morph into one uber-gadget that is constantly online. These little Blackberrys/personal digital assistants/digital cameras/MP3 players/video cameras/GPS devices will continue to shrink in size and increase in functionality and ease of use.

Today this is obvious when your lunch companions check their Blackberrys for messages. But soon you won’t be able to tell that they’re even doing this. Their eyeglasses will have little video screens that can bring up any image they want. While you talk, they can check their e-mail or watch the news. Of course you can do the same, calling up the text of Macbeth when you think dropping some Shakespearian bon mot will impress your audience.

Most of us wonder what this environment is doing to the way we process information, learn and even think. Young people—digital natives—seem to be more adept at dealing with this new environment. I’m hopeful that the changes to their brains, caused by their growing up digital, will be posi­tive ones. But many people worry and justifiably so, as there is much that we don’t know about the human brain and human behavior. Will we all end up in “the shallows,” as Nicholas Carr describes them, where we lose our capacity for deep thought? Will we abandon reading deeper and longer works and end up flittering around from one data source to another like a bee in a garden of flowers? Will this affect our relationships with others as we are consumed by thousand of weak social-media ties and have less time for those we love? Will this new world change not only how we think and relate but how we are—and the values we have and stand for?

I’ve written that we need to adopt a much more take-charge attitude about how we manage these tools and all this information, and, for that matter, how we live. More than ever before we need to step back and consciously design our lives. We need to decide explicitly what we stand for and whether we are the slaves or the masters of the new technologies.

When I was a kid, life for my parents was blissfully sim­pler. There was one daily newspaper in our house and three television channels. Dad went to work. Mum didn’t. Workers put in their hours in factories or planned their days at the office, and the only source of interruption was the telephone. We had clear values—taught by our mothers in our homes and reinforced weekly at church. There was no pornography in the house or, for that matter, even on the newsstands in our town.

This was the late ’50s, and the cause célèbre was whether Ed Sullivan would show Elvis grinding his pelvis on his hugely popular Sunday night variety television show. The decision: no. All images of Elvis were from the waist up.

Smart companies are taking initiatives to help their employees cope with the new technology-rich world. They train their employees in time management and in becoming members of a values-based enterprise. They ensure that integ­rity is part of their corporate DNA. They design business models, structures and processes to ensure that work systems best serve the organization and maximize the effectiveness of its people.

Smart people and families should do the same. On the per­sonal front, most of us, in our daily lives, in our work and in our families, muddle through this new data-rich, networked world, hopping from device to device, app to app, decision to decision or crisis to crisis without an overarching strategy. All of us should be applying principles of design to our lives and making conscious choices about how to upgrade our capacity to filter data, when we hould use new technologies and what we believe in.

Adopt a values statement for yourself and your family— and constantly revise it as the world and conditions change. Don’t complain about technological overload. Know how to adjust and even turn off the shower. Harness the power of new technologies and transparency for the good; design them rather than letting them control you.

I hope you find Information Bombardment: Rising Above the Digital Onslaught to be a helpful contribution to this rather epic challenge.

—Don Tapscott

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Don Tapscott is the author of fourteen books including Mac­roWikinomics: Rebooting Business and the World (with Anthony D. Williams). He is an adjunct professor at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto.

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