by Chas Withers

November 21, 2013

“Hello, my name is Chas, and I’m addicted to technology.”

If that sounds like an admission to a support group, my sense is that the shaking heads lamenting my condition don’t come from just a small, intimate circle of colleagues but also through clicks from a much larger, global, more anonymous and more “disconnected” audience. Indeed, I see the same affliction – for better or for worse – every day among my co-workers, my clients and the larger world as a whole.

The constant barrage of data, of conversation and of interaction makes for quick jolts of feedback, reinforcement and emotion. But it also means that the ability to slow down and truly think through complex issues can be thwarted – perhaps severely. Ready access – a.k.a. immediate access – is truly a drug, one from which it is it very hard to be weaned. And yet in our industry, where personal communications/authentic connection and creative thought are our collateral, there has to be a balance struck that converts technology to an asset.

Psychologists and behavioralists are beginning to pile up the research on this subject, and it’s daunting.  Increased stress levels (with related physical and mental byproducts) and an inability to be present in the moment are the most common manifestations. But it’s simpler than that. Though it might seem like an old-fashioned notion, my question would be, “What are we losing in terms of personal human connection by our heightened reliance on technology?”

Of course, opinion is highly divided on this subject. Clive Thompson’s recent book “Smarter Than You Think” has high praise for the effects of technology and the concept of “ambient awareness.” Thompson, in compelling fashion, makes the case that technology underpins greater social connection than we could achieve otherwise, and his perspective resonates strongly with many folks (including “The Tech Me”).

That sentiment falls directly in conflict, however, with sitting intimately with others and having friends or colleagues or clients immersed in their phones, computers or tablets, chiming into dialogues a few milliseconds late due to distraction, or – worse yet – missing out completely on a key point and then mentally dialing back after the fact. The emerging psychological field of “mindfulness” actually spawns directly from this scenario.

MIT professor Sherry Turkle’s “Connected, but Alone” TED speech has been viewed almost 2 million times by people looking for answers on the same front. She, too, makes valid arguments about the tangible and intangible takeaways as a result of technology saturation.

Ultimately, it’s a personal decision determined by one’s age (almost certainly) and one’s personality and “need/want” (definitely). But specific to public relations, communications and creativity, professionals have to strive to meld the two worlds into a framework that adds value to what we do.

Though speed and real-time velocity have never been the norm the way they are for all of us today, reflection and the ability to “quiet the mind” – especially as it relates to problem-solving cognition, design and, most critically, LISTENING – are capabilities that I hope aren’t being pulled from us, one app at a time.