Schrijvend meisje by Johannes Vermeer

Why is internet so hard?

There are people that would disagree, but…

Let’s consider this quote from Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari (emphasis mine):

“One of the history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations. Once people get used to a certain luxury, they take it for granted. Then they begin to count on it. Finally they reach a point where they can’t live without it. Let’s take another familiar example from our own time. Over the last few decades we have invented countless time-saving devices that are supposed to make life more relaxed — washing machines, vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, telephones, mobile phones, computer, email. Previously it took a lot of work to write a letter, address and stamp an envelope, and take it to the mailbox. It took days or weeks, maybe even months, to get a reply. Nowadays I can dash of an email, send it halfway around the globe, and (if my addressee is online) receive a reply a minute later. I’ve saved all that trouble and time, but do I live a more relaxed life?
Sadly not. Back in the snail-mail era, people usually only wrote letters when they had something important to relate. Rather than writing the first thing that came into their heads, they considered carefully what they wanted to say and how to phrase it. They expected to receive a similarly considered answer. Most people wrote and received no more than a handful of letters a month and seldom felt compelled to reply immediately. Today I receive dozens of emails each day, all from people who expect a prompt reply. We thought we were saving time; instead we revved up the threadmill of life to ten times its former speed and made our days more anxious and agitated.”

So what do you think, why is internet so hard?

I would put it in this way — over last couple of decades our communication and collaboration environment has changed significantly because of new media technologies.

There are two major consequences.

People using these technologies are easily distracted. We loose focus easily, not only during our work, but also in our personal relationships. Because technology “made our days more anxious and agitated” and because of quantity and intensity of our daily online interactions and distractions, we are literally loosing (wasting) our time and energy. How is that in line with produce no waste principle? It is not. In corporate world this phenomenon is recently being researched and recognised as collaborative overload or collaborative burnout.

The other consequence is that we are loosing not only habit of letter-writing — the very skill of letter-writing might become one of the lost skills soon. The same goes for reading letters and books. Letters and books require prolonged focused attention, “removal” of distractions and pace or rhythm that is measured in days and weeks, not minutes or hours. Compare that with electronic text communication, not only in quality, but also in quantity over the same period of time. That’s the reason why quite a lot of people choose to ignore what they’ve come — consciously or unconsciously — to percieve as “noise” coming towards them via their screens and gadgets. Ignoring is more in line with their needs than following all (or some) of that.

In his book Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now Douglas Rushkoff introduces the phenomenon of presentism, or — since most of us are finding it hard to adapt — present shock. Alvin Toffler’s radical 1970 book, Future Shock, theorized that things were changing so fast we would soon lose the ability to cope. Rushkoff argues that the future is now and we’re contending with a fundamentally new challenge. Whereas Toffler said we were disoriented by a future that was careening toward us, Rushkoff argues that we no longer have a sense of a future, of goals, of direction at all. We have a completely new relationship to time; we live in an always-on “now,” where the priorities of this moment seem to be everything.

I would argue that this phenomenon is not just about “priorities of this moment” but also about priorities of our immediate physical environment. That’s where our individual, real needs are being satisfied. That’s where our true drivers are, not in virtual “world”. Around us, not elsewhere.

So… there are some individual and cultural consequences of changes in our communication and collaboration environment to address with some design thinking before we make internet less hard.

Note: this post (4 minute read) is designed for internet reading, for example. The Email Charter is also good example of design thinking applied to email. See below for more.

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