It’s at the Scene of the Crime, but it’s not the Criminal

People are saying technology is making us stupid. Technology is shattering our attention. Technology is ruining our children. Technology is making us busier than ever.

Taking that train of thought a step further: technology can fix the problem. I believe we can make smarter email and smarter phones – and we should. It just won’t fix the problem.

We can think of technology like cupcakes. The cupcake is at the scene of the crime, but it’s not the criminal. We can make smarter cupcakes — sugar free, higher in fiber, but that doesn’t seem to be making any difference. The cupcake isn’t saying, “Eat five of me.” We make the choice. “I’ll have one and take a walk. I won’t have one.” Or, “I’ll have five.”

Why will it be different with technology? Technology is at the scene of the crime. The criminal is that voice inside of each of us that says, “Do it all. Have it all. Don’t stop to consider what you’re doing or why. Run fast and do as much as you can.”

Sharon, a former professor turned consultant, says it always seems easier to respond to emails than to work on the project files sitting right in front of her. Is she making this choice because picking up a project file requires focused attention and emailing requires less of a commitment? Or is there a buzz of completion and immediate gratification each time the send button is pressed in contrast to the delayed gratification from a meatier project?

The technology is at the scene of the crime – a weapon of mass communication turning productivity opportunities into an excuse for procrastination. How do the choices we make in each moment, about what we choose to do and what we choose to ignore, tell the story of what matters to us?

When a day begins and ends with a list of action items, it can lack a sense of purpose. Without a sense of purpose, we have no framework to guide our choices.
As we plan our day, while reviewing what we hope to do, we can ask ourselves: Why is each of these things on the list? What can I do to bring into focus what really matters to me? What can I exclude that would allow me closer alignment with my sense of purpose and my intentions?

Technology, just like cupcakes, is there — for our pleasure. The crime only happens when we forget our sense of purpose and fail to make choices as to what we include or exclude.

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  • John S

    I agree in part with your blog on technology. I’ve been following some of these arguments with Andrew Keen and those who point out the downsides of the web. My view is that the problem is the lack of face-to-face interactions and the loss of a sense of purpose that can be damaging to families, communities, and individuals. Technology can sometimes enhance communications but sometimes it allows others to prey on unsuspecting individuals to steal their money or to take advantage of children who are yet aware and wary of the bad things other people can do to them. The web and internet give the feeling of community, but often it’s a very thin layer. If someone makes you feel uncomfortable, you simply don’t respond. The real value of technology is to help people gather information 1. about problems that exist – like slow degradation of the environment and 2. gathering and discussing how to solve those problems.

  • Luke G

    Your perspective reminds me of Jimmy Carter’s suggestion to put on a sweater and turn down the heat. There is virtue in this type of self sacrifice, to be sure, but effecting large-scale change without institutional/structural change seems to be notoriously difficult.

    There are plenty of virtuous (and/or vain) folks who turn down the cupcakes. Most of our country, though, is demonstrably overweight. Why? Because of structural economic and cultural support for unhealthy food production and consumption practices.

    I’d venture that the same goes for email and attention.

  • Jim S.

    The cupcake doesn’t say “eat me”, the blog doesn’t say “read me” and the coke doesn’t say “snort me”, but here I am reading this blog instead of working on that project… at least it’s a blog and not a cupcake. ;)

  • George

    I think you are introducing a few different topics and mashing them all together.
    Work avoidance has and always will be there, technology has nothing to do with it, it’s just another avenue of distraction.

    But technology working smarter for us to give us more free time is a Madison Avenue 1950’s line of bull. When a new technology that speeds up our lives becomes common place we are all expected to now do that task in less time and move on to the next task. We NEVER gain more time with time saving devices, we just do more, and have to work more hours to afford such luxuries.

    I laugh every time I hear technology is making our lives easier. It’s more fun, it gives us access to more knowledge, it helps us live longer and healthier, it solves a lot of problems, but it never gives us more time to kick back and enjoy life. The idea of George Jetson pushing one or two buttons a day as being hard work is a pipe dream, and Jane looking after the family is a distance memory for most.

    Social and economic factors are pushing us harder and longer then ever before, I sometimes wonder if anyone ever stops and wonders whatever happened to our quality of life.

    Oh well, back to my cube, have some code to knock out.


  • I don’t think it’s hard to make one’s life easier, given technological advances, for many people. Just ignore that drumbeat of “consume, consume,” and you can be content with better medicine, etc., that satisfy those basic needs, and eschew the big screen TV, or Lexus. And then don’t answer your phone or e-mail when you don’t want to.

    But that’s not what most people are going to do, and it may be that most people won’t be any happier, and collectively that may indeed be a disaster.

  • Thanks for all your insightful comments. So interesting, in fact, that I shared them with Walt Mossberg when we had lunch this afternoon. Between these comments and the conversation with Walt, I’m reconsidering the view, “technology is neutral.”

  • Technology is definitely not neutral, in general. I can point you to a bunch of writings on that. :) Lots of historians of technology have made this point. Technologies come with values and affordances. Even a cupcake has values that are, ahem, baked into it. It’s inherently a dessert/indulgence. “Healthy cupcake” is an oxymoron, or maybe it’s a muffin.