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To connect or not to connect?


It’s assumed the ‘always-on’ mode of constant connection is detrimental for creativity, but in this age of technology is it realistic to assume people can switch off? Should we embrace it instead?

How many times have you been in a meeting when somebody’s phone suddenly rings, or receives a message? The concentration of the people in the room is broken, and it can take anything between 64 seconds and several minutes to regain focus, presenting negative implications for productivity. But in an age where rapid communication is critical for business success, is it reasonable or realistic to assume that we can switch off?

The Internet is akin to temptation, providing us with a rewarding alternative to a physical reality which we often wish to escape. Sat in a boring meeting? Why not quickly check your email? Or see what’s happening on Facebook and Twitter? Or buy something on Amazon? We all do it, but what is the effect on our productivity and creativity?

Don’t worry, I’m no angel here either. I’ve recently had to resort to switching off my home router when I really need to get some work done. And the availability of software such as Freedom which you can buy to block you from accessing the Internet clearly shows that I’m not alone, although the irony of actually paying money to not access the Intenet is hard to ignore.

The explosion of personal technologies such as smartphones and iPads has unleashed the creative potential of millions of adults and children alike. But it has also caused a significant headache for many businesses as they struggle to keep their employees focused and prevent them from connecting to social networks. As the Internet becomes increasingly central to business operations it is not possible to try and prevent people from going online. Educators too are increasingly concerned about the potentially harmful ways in which technology and the Internet are impacting on students ability to learn. Even educators who themselves believe in the positive affordances of technology are worried.

But there is an interesting counter-argument that distractions actually be useful when you’re trying to think creatively. By distracting the conscious part of your brain you are enabling your subconscious to work creatively and generate new ideas. Research has also shown that distractions can help us solve certain types of problems, such as those requiring insight.

Tools, devices and the Internet will continue to transform how we create, work, learn, communicate, socialise, and even think. But unless we understand how – and when – to use these tools effectively there is a danger that they will hinder our concentration, productivity and creativity. As technology provides us with an increasingly tempting range of distractions, how do we ensure that we are still able to be fully present in the physical space when we need to be?

The challenge is to connect efficiently, to be clear about what we are aiming to achieve through the use of technology, and to appreciate the value of being both connected and disconnected. It’s clearly not reasonable to try and ban people from using the Internet, but it is reasonable to help people harness the affordances of new technologies and understand when they might help or hinder our creativity.

We are in the middle of a slow but unstoppable paradigm shift from a reality in which computer technology was something ‘additional’ to one which is built both on and around computers and the Internet. Even indigenous Amazonian tribes are going mobile. Given that the Internet is destined to play a central role in our evolution during the 21st Century, it is essential that we educate ourselves, our employees and our children about how to use it effectively.

If we are unable to stop our children from being cyber-bullied, or ourselves from becoming increasingly distracted and lonely, then we are losing the battle against technological determinism and allowing our fate to be decided by machines. Providing effective education about how to use the Internet effectively will ultimately enable future generations to understand how it can enhance, and not simply determine, our creative potential. And it will also help us to appreciate the value of being fully present in any given moment and not miss out on what is real.

Technology evangelists will have you believe that the Internet is our destiny, with some thought leaders such as Ray Kurzweil believing we are ultimately destined to transcend our bodies entirely and exist wholly online. Technophobes would argue that we are in danger of giving technology too much power to dominate our lives. I’d be happy if I could just get through a meeting without somebody’s phone going off.

Photo credit: Sookie

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