The Ghost in the Machine: Technology Begets Insanity – Part II

I figured I'd post this right away because 'oh guess what?' I don't like to wait for anything either! -- This is the second post of a two-part series about how the rapid acceleration of information distribution contributes to an epidemic of anxiety.

Media Digestion

As I mentioned in Part I, television journalism started off as nothing more than moving pictures of a guy behind a desk reading the news into an old-fashioned microphone. It was based on the radio news model because that’s what broadcasters were familiar with. There was no reason to think outside the wood-grain box at the time. The stories and magic were all in your mind.

Content and production values progressed a little bit by the time many of us were growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s. There were more “live shots” by then because microwave and satellite technology got better and cheaper. Teleprompters eliminated a lot of the paper shuffling, although anchors still occasionally glanced down at scripts to inject a little gravitas to the proceedings.

Now twentysome years later you are bombarded with the video equivalent of the Las Vegas Strip (or International Drive if you’re from Orlando) every time you turn on CNN. There is an onslaught of tickers, ribbons and graphics delivering stock reports, alerts, what I referred to affectionately as “micro-headlines,” and teasers. 

They punch up quick cuts to a dozen different personalities who report, comment and advocate that we chime in via Facebook, Twitter, iReports and other social channels. That is now an average, everyday newscast.

I'm going to guess that for most of you, your days look like this as far as media digestion:

  • Wake up and begin your day visually digesting that gauntlet we referred to as the news.
  • Check your e-mail, Facebook, Twitter and other related mobile applications to see if last night garnered any additional conversation.
  • Drive to your work while listening to a podcast, music or e-book
  • Upon arrival at work, take another pass at your social channels (this will probably be an hourly function throughout the day).
  • If you're like me then you start to perform “the dance.” The dance is an elaborate multitasking flow between applications that might feel seamless but requires definitive mental cycles based on the program you're using. Photoshop takes a certain type of focus and concentration, while answering e-mail, preparing a presentation and processing social media all require different types of interaction. And if I had to guess, I would say 25 percent of this is done while you're on the phone or in a meeting.
  • After nine or 10 hours of that you close up shop and repeat your drivetime rituals during the evening commute.
  • Ideally you enjoy dinner unplugged to ensure that you know who lives in your home.
  • Then once the kids are in bed or you attend the homeowners association meeting, you “jack back in" to perform a smaller version of the dance with your friends, fans, followers while watching TV for a little downtime. That is if you consider it to be downtime when you are electronically tethered to hundreds of people.

Forced Adaptation

In addition to the mass amounts of content that we ingest on a daily basis, there is another phenomenon that I like to refer to as “forced adaptation.” Early in the personal computer revolution, we bought software applications in boxes. On the outside of each box was something called a version number that changed only every year or two when there was a new release. Now updates flood every aspect of what we view online and with our devices.

Long gone are the days of spoon-feeding and handholding you through differentiations in user interface and user experience. There is at best a brief “tour” of the new features in a given system. Most users go through forced adaptation of a given application, website, or digital tool. You have such a defined need for said application that you have to learn changes on the fly.

Furthermore, beyond paid applications for which you can use a previous version, our online tools are simply revised behind the scenes and out of our control. Rarely can you go back to a previous model. Facebook is on the forefront a forced adaptation, with features like timeline, switching locations of navigation, jostling security settings and adding and subtracting new features at whim.

And within this era of the multimodal user we now have to take into account not simply utilizing one tool but trying to figure out the changes in order to properly use it. Then you go one step further in your digestion rate of media by using multiple devices.

It’s not unusual for us to read e-mail while we channel-surf, zap past commercials, check our list of recordings and text the kids in the next room to tell them it’s time for bed. We feel like we’re in charge of what captures our attention – but I question that. The human brain is an incredible machine, able to take on an endless array of challenge. But at what cost?

Digital Status

Lastly I will define “digital status." Digital status comes from an array of different locations. But the long and short of it is that they utilize game mechanics to tap into our competitive psyche and create a sense of self-worth based on showing others our accomplishments.

You have social scoring mechanisms such as Klout.com. You have an endless array of online games you can play with friends, fans or strangers. There are digital rewards-based systems. And I will even go so far as to extend that rewards-based system into consumer models such as referral programs. The biggest and baddest of all comes from puritanical video games, social games in related leadership based on experience.

These game mechanics are finely crafted to not just entice people to play, but to maintain loyalty to a specific game due to the time investment. The construction of status is the natural byproduct of longevity. It's also important to note that a great deal of stress is manifested in trying to accomplish greater status. Just like anything that is addictive, the momentary high is often fleeting. Too much is never enough.

I'm not going on a lengthy dissertation about insanely long work weeks, higher levels of stress, and expectations from society that we should all be overachievers. Even if we don’t want to admit it, we all know the downside to that lifestyle. There is less time to be meditative and introspective. We don’t take part in enough recreation, fitness and stress control.

I’m finally admitting that I need the downtime. That is very much where I am in my life right now. Not only am I being cognizant about what I digest, but how I digest it and what I intend to do with my time when I'm not plugged into The Matrix.

So my theory is this: Those of us who are up to our pierced nipples in careers and adulthood are forced to make hundreds of Darwinian evolutionary jumps within one lifetime. Even though we grew up with computers and video games, we are simply not wired to do this effortlessly. 

I will say, however, that I think my daughter has a better grasp of media digestion at the age of 5 than I did at 25. For her this is as natural as a talking unicorn. Therefore I believe future generations will not be affected as intensely by technological anxiety and stress.

I'm not advocating that anyone should rely on pharmaceuticals to simplify life.  Chemical assistance has worked for me. I’m now trying to make life changes that I perceive as best practices. And I hope that in the end I will be a better father, husband, friend and professional.