The Visualist Blog

Digital Distraction: Weapons of Mass Distraction (Part 1)

Digital Distraction: Weapons of Mass Distraction (Part 1)

We don’t need the recent media coverage to understand that social media can impose a negative influence on our lives. The rallying cry around social media that it ‘brings people together’ should be questioned. We can all relate to having twitchy thumbs that override what would normally be a relaxing moment of solitude, low-grade stress, and the feeling of isolation that comes from a constant feed of other people’s carefully curated, better-than-normal media streams. Social technologies are not the only culprits – wearable IoT devices, ‘collaboration’ software (I’ll explain the air quotes later), systems such as Slack, and instant messaging platforms that reach across all of your devices often do more harm than good when it comes to productivity, focus, and engagement.

I have to be careful here – after all, for the past 8 years I’ve focused almost exclusively on technologies that allow people to collaborate and work together more effectively. I’d hate for my life’s narrative to include adding to people’s anxiety, distractions, and ultimately making people feel isolated from one another. So I’ve had to ask myself, ‘How is what I am doing not simply Facebook in another form? Also, how should we think about technologies and how they either support or distract from human-centered (read healthy) interactions and behaviors?’ Perhaps once we have a taxonomy that better describes the problem of digital distraction, we can then talk about how to address it.

Fundamentally, I am both an optimist and a technologist. I don’t think the problem of digital distraction is technology itself. In fact, I believe that technologies when employed correctly can help bring us together. These technologies should augment and support our person-to-person interactions and not distract from them.

I like to think about interactive and social technologies along two axes – time and space. The first thing thing to determine is the technologies support of interaction in real-time – is it synchronous or asynchronous? Are the users interacting in a time-dependent, live manner? Do users actions, interactions, and communications depend on one another in a single timeline? Is it real-time? If the answer is yes to these questions, I’d claim that the technology fits in the synchronous category. An example of a synchronous collaboration technology is FaceTime. Alternatively, technologies that support multi-user interaction but encourage individual, time-independent engagement are asynchronous. An example of an asynchronous interaction technology is Facebook – you can post, and a year later I can ‘like’.

The second axis used to determine how technology supports interaction is space: be it proximate or distant. I probably don’t need to explain this one, but if the technology supports interactions with individuals who are nearby – that’s proximate. Examples of this are digital whiteboards, mobile media streaming, and even trivia night at the local pub. At the other end of the spectrum you have technologies that are independent of location and, often, focus on use-cases where users are far apart. We have plenty of examples of this type of technology ranging from video conferencing to instant messaging.

Of course not all collaboration and social interaction software fits neatly within each of these axes, but it’s interesting to think about where each would fall on a ‘Collaboration Support Quadrant’ defined by these two important aspects. Here’s a snapshot of that exact exercise I conducted yesterday on my porch (yes that is a napkin):

Digital Distraction: Weapons of Mass Distraction (Part 1)

If you look at the spread of technologies that we’ve developed over the past several decades, many of the usual suspects ranging from social networking and communications space are weighted towards the lower-left, asynchronous and users that are distant from one another. This may not be surprising given many of these technologies emerged from telephony. More recently, companies (including Mersive) have started to focus on how to enable teams when they are together. How to make synchronous interactions more engaging and more productive.

Why does this taxonomy matter? Ask yourself, ‘When do my interactions seem most productive, more enjoyable?’ I’d argue we’re happiest when we’re spending our time closer to the top-right. Collaboration is more natural there because it’s how we evolved as humans. The bottom left is where our personal productivity lives, where we can work in isolation. When it comes to collaboration – technology needs to support the natural inclination to operate at the top right. It’s part of the reason that Facebook’s claim that they bring people together just feels wrong – and it’s why I’m excited to continue to work on technologies in the top right.

If you’re building software that’s intended to allow individuals to work or play together, I’d encourage you to look for ways to focus on synchronous, proximate workflows. It’ll create strong tailwinds to your product because your aligned with ten thousand years of human development. At the same time, if you are using collaboration software there are ways to avoid digital distraction that are hinted at by this taxonomy – we’ll tackle that in the next post. Until then, spend some time with people in real-time, in-person!

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