Communication Currents

Taking a Turn at Technology: Technology and Our Culture of Efficiency

October 1, 2009
Digital Communication & Gaming, Organizational Communication

Our culture is a culture of efficiency. We are forever striving to optimize time and resources, to accomplish more, better and faster, with less effort, money, assets, time, and people. In the last few years especially, communication technologies have become integral to the ways that people work and keep up-to-date with friends, family, coworkers, and even strangers. Think iPhone, BlackBerry, netbook, blogs, podcasts, Twitter, and Facebook. We routinely and instantaneously transmit messages in the forms of photographs, video, audio, and text to individuals and groups worldwide. We work, play, bank, invest, learn, communicate, create, flirt, shop, gamble, and procrastinate online, and even while we're on-the-go, we're using portable devices such as smartphones. We carry the world, digitized, in our pockets and purses, backpacks and briefcases. But using this powerful electronic gear day-in and day-out has costs. It turns out that some of our most innovative and beloved efficiency-oriented technologies, such as cell phones, are not necessarily efficient, effective, or healthy for people or the environment when used unwisely.

In our culture of efficiency, many people are literally overdosing on work, interruptions, information, and messages communicated over cell phones and computers. The early twentieth century dream that modern technology in homes and businesses would streamline our lives and lead to increased leisure time for people to enjoy has not materialized. Instead, more and more people are compelled to be always-on and communicatively connected to others, even while in places of worship, theaters, schools, yoga studios, bedrooms, restrooms, and restaurants, and also when on-the-move. Always-on extreme workers do their work everywhere, even while on vacation, if they take vacations. Often, employees overwork and stay continuously available to their employers, coworkers, and customers via communication technologies because of job insecurity. This is called presenteeism, and is the opposite of absenteeism. Workers exhibiting presenteeism perform their jobs in ways that can harm their personal lives. Researchers studying those who must deal with work-related interruptions during personal time and family-related interruptions during worktime call this phenomenon work-family spillover. As a result, these individuals experience higher stress levels. Stress is associated with a variety of physical and mental health problems that ultimately become costly to individuals, their families, and the organizations where they work.

When people are stressed and time-crunched, they multitask. Sometimes they multitask on-the-go. The overwhelming majority of respondents in several recent studies about texting, emailing, and talking on cell phones while driving expressed their understanding that these behaviors are safety hazards. Yet many who are aware of the risks of using mobile communication technologies while driving do it anyway. The reality is that people are most efficient and effective when they focus their attention and energy on one task at a time, rather than toggling back and forth between tasks. As this becomes more well-known, increasingly people are taking technology sabbaticals, judiciously turning off their smartphones or closing down their email applications, for example, from time-to-time, so they can focus on one thing at a time. Computers can be deployed to work on multiple tasks simultaneously, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, but humans cannot. We are most efficient when we allow ourselves to take adequate time to focus, reflect, and recharge. To thrive in a culture of efficiency, being mindful and deliberate about how and when we use technology is essential.

About the author (s)

Sharon Kleinman

Quinnipiac University