Thursday, March 25, 2010

Thoughts from the Train: does technology simply make us more stressed?

I have a new gadget in my hands, a BlackBerry 9700 Bold. It is something of an upgrade on the BlackBerry 8700 I had before and, whilst I am struggling to make it do all of the things I could get its predecessor to do, I'm sure that it and I will get on swimmingly in due course. However, it does serve to remind me that technology is not altogether the boon that we are often told it is.

When I was Secretary of the Young Liberal Democrats, many years ago when I was a much smaller, more evenly furry mammal, I produced the minutes on a primitive electric typewriter, photocopied them and posted them to each Executive member. It took time, but expectations were proportionately low. If anything was urgent, you picked up the telephone and rang the relevant person. You only posted something if you needed to, and the flow of information was very manageable.

Nowadays, technology allows me to transmit information in any direction quickly and easily. Unfortunately, it allows other people to do the same. Now, whilst I like to think that I only tend to do so if it is necessary, not everyone else is the same. I often find myself caught in an avalanche of e-mail, most of which is of little interest to me, because people feel that they must make their contribution, regardless of relevance, value or originality.

That might not be particularly stressful, but I do have to check it to see if it is important, or requires me to do anything. It is, however, nothing compared to the pressure to reply to e-mail directed at me.

At work, I have external e-mail, a rarity indeed. I used to include the e-mail address in my correspondence because it provided another way of reaching me. However, I learned over time that this was a bad idea because the fact that e-mail was immediate led correspondents to assume that they would get an early response. The fact that, regardless of means of communication, I deal with it in order of receipt, didn't stop a stream of e-mails along the lines of 'I e-mailed you yesterday and you haven't replied...'. Indeed, one taxpayer rang me fifteen minutes after e-mailing me to demand to know why I hadn't replied yet!

There is a tendency to assume that the use of e-mail telescopes the time required to respond to questions, yet there is little evidence that people apply the same sense of urgency when they are responding to an exchange that they do when initiating one.

That potential immediacy also helps to harshen the tone of our discourse. As I learned during last year's Liberal Youth elections, it is too easy to react hastily, thus prolonging vitriolic exchanges when having to work harder to communicate might allow a cooling off.

Our politics is also more febrile, with a flood of comment often made on the basis of a partial set of facts, which seeks to pressurise opponents into a response. Especially in the Westminster village, and the blogosphere in particular, there is a sense of urgency that drives debate along without a chance to stop and reflect. The expenses scandal saw a number of incidences of 'kangaroo courts' finding individuals guilty and calling for sanctions without waiting for the facts to fully emerge. Had those calls been heeded, the consequences might have been grave indeed.

Technology allows us to do things that would have amazed our parents twenty years ago, and our world is the better for it. But there is a price to be paid, and we need to understand that paying it isn't always easy...

1 comment:

MatGB said...

Don't know about stressed, but it doesn't half give you deva vu.

You might want to delete version 2 & 3 of this post...