With the emergence of the internet, emails and WIFI, the term “connectivity” is a very interesting word to examine. As social networking sites proliferate, human connection seems to have improved in recent years. With a click of a mouse, your colleague would have received an email. With a press of a button, a SMS has reached the phone of your friend overseas. With a touch on a “touch screen” display, a document can be displayed for all to see. This seems to be the period where humans really connect, not exactly physically but emotionally and psychologically, aided by the advancement of technology, specifically the cyberspace and numerous telecommunications devices and broadband. It’s thus hard to separate the word “connectivity” (which usually refers to connections made between machines) from “connection” (which has a more human touch and refers to human bonds and friendships being forged). In a metaphorical sense, it seems that machines and humans have blended into one single organism, where one cannot do without the other. This proves contrary to past sci-fi films where machines are often more feared than adored, as depicted in films such as “The Terminator” and “Artificial Intelligence”.
This article is written to illustrate the point that machines do increase the “connection nodes” among humans but in the process, they do not bond us. In fact, they are the primary cause of human miscommunications and the determining factor behind the changing landscape of labour market. Let’s look at some examples:
- Emails: It’s true that emails are a much better option than snail mail. It sends a mail faster than any hardcopy letters. When it comes to the speed of delivery, we are talking more about seconds than days or even weeks. What’s more, photos, documents and other forms of attachments can be sent too, with no postage charge. However, this is merely skimming the surface. Because the speed of email delivery – be it information, well wishes or festive greetings- is almost instantaneous, the delights of anticipation is lost. In another words, emails does not result in happier human relations but rather, instant gratification. Instant gratification from emails is different from instant gratification from films (where a closure is often given at the end, at least for mainstream films). In emails, instant gratification lies within the domain of receiving, in this case an email. But in spite of this, there is often no closure or that closure takes a substantial period of time to materialise (because due to the high speed of delivery, we often do not take the time to put some thoughts into our emails and hence they are often either incomplete or inaccurate. resulting in miscommunications). Doubts will surface in emails that require verification and clarification, especially in the workplace. This will result in the exchange of numerous emails before a decision/consensus/outcome can be reached, and we are now merely talking about an email correspondence regarding a single matter. When pending matters to attend to increase, the amount of emails also increases. Coupled this increase with the fact that there is no standardised system of classifying emails to the different categories and level of importance, emails create confusion and disruptions both in the workplace (where working professionals get confused) and at home (where working professionals are expected to check emails at home after work). The responsibility to develop a classification system thus falls on the working professionals and considering the different emails of different level of importance, different senders and different matters, it’s not surprising that even the most organised and logical person will falter and fumble. Emails are said to be among the most effective creations in the workplace but seen in this light, emails are the primary source of increasing workload (since there are increased expectations to have more matters resolved within a much shorter period of time) and miscommunications (nothing beats a face-to-face interaction with someone where both their verbal and non-verbal responses can be assessed). Emails make impromptu changes in our work and life possible. Coupled with increased expectations from others to respond fast, we get the outcome of “work stress”. In the “email-less” era, we do not have these issues and live our lives at a sane pace. Think about it.
- Handphones, personal computers (PC) /laptops and palmtops: Often considered to be a gift to mankind, I beg to differ. It’s undeniable that the ability to reach someone is increased when a telecommunication device is available to each of us instead of having only one in our homes. But because of this fact, handphones now play surrogate mum to what the media has been doing. While the media fill up empty spaces in our lives with activities, music, movies and other forms of distractions, the phone is doing the same via SMSes and calls. It’s important to note that being contactable at anytime is important, especially if there is an emergency that we are attending to, urgent matters to settle, or business deals to close. However, there are times in our lives where we need that space to be creative, to be alone and to brainstorm on matters. And handphones – in this instance – serve as a tool of disruption to break that silence. In life, a strong ability to think and analyse is as important a skills as doing something. Thinkers (a.k.a. thought leaders) are as important as doers. Pragmatism must be balanced with creativity in order to be effective. Complementary to handphones are their portable cousins: personal computers /laptops and palmtops. These devices – while not as disruptive (since there are no incoming rings or at least, not as distracting)- prove to be a match to handphones since they compensate these deficiencies with increased functionalities (which is tempting for users to indulge in) and more prominently, some corporate work cultures almost make it a mandate to have a laptop/palmtop switched on. Employees are often seen walking around with laptops, placing them in front of them during meetings (when it should be switched off and put away as this is showing respect to the presenters in the meeting) and answering emails on palmtops in buses with both hands (when they should be holding tightly to the metal railings for support as safety is a concern). It is understandable if we use handphones, laptops and palmtops to attend to urgent matters but more often than not, these matters are not urgent and responses need not be instantaneous. To make matters worse, most instant messaging (IM) system has a “blinking” function to notify its user that there is an incoming message. While this feature is useful, it distracts its users from actively listening or participating in whenever endeavours they are doing. For instance, I have noted on numerous occasions how distracted working professionals answer messages in the midst of a meeting where someone is presenting (not because they choose to but because they have to, either because the matter they are attending to bears a certain degree of urgency or it’s part of the corporate culture), and this writer is one of them. And I have also noticed how students are distracted by their laptops in the midst of a team discussion. By asking ourselves the questions “Should we not attend to these distractions?”, is laziness and irresponsibility being advocated here? No. Instead, I am proposing that sometimes we should stop our work for a rest and use this time lapse to brainstorm on the following questions: Is there a better solution? Am I able to streamline any processes in order to be more efficient? Am I missing anything when I go about resolving this issue? These are important questions to consider but it will not happen in the absence of rest time. Thus having a “time-out” session is not only beneficial to our mental and physical well-being but also enables us to improve our skills as communicators and working professionals as well, not to mention the misunderstandings, miscommunications and inefficiencies that will inadvertently result when we do not think things through before responding.
- Connectivity in computer games, especially Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Games (MMORPGs): Internet has given us a new land which belongs to all of us without us having to compete for it: cyberspace. However, merely being in cyberspace does not enable us to interact with others. Hence, along come blogs, emails and instant messaging (IM) systems. However, communications in blogs are predominantly one-way and almost non-responsive to online visitors. Emails are two-way but they do not function in real time, at least not fast enough. Along the same vein, communications in Instant Messaging (IM) systems are able to accommodate groups of people and in real-time. But there is no interesting activity in most of these communications (coming together in an online conference is not exactly what we will call a virtually enjoyable experience, although some might choose to disagree). Thus MMORPGs has arrived to save the day with the following features:
- Communications are more than two-way (online players are able to communicate to almost any other online players);
- Game play and interaction (almost) in real-time;
- Players are able to receive audio instructions from other players at times;
- There is a somewhat similar scenarios for all players and more importantly, a common purpose and a reason for all virtual gamers to come together;
- Players are given the freedom to enter and leave the game (read: online interactions with other players)
- In recent years, educators are attempting to infuse learning into game play, thus using entertainment to contribute to one’s cognitive development
There is a flipside to online game play though. Online gaming addictions are getting serious in some countries where access to broadband access and internet gaming are prevalent. Children and students are distracted from their homework and many spend a substantial amount of time in front of computers/laptops instead of textbooks. While individuals are known to be distracted by televisions previously, computers and especially the activity of gaming has taken over as the predominant distractions, especially among students. This trend seems to be irreversible and I personally feel so. This is probably the reason why most educators today choose to accept gaming as a platform for learning instead of ostracising it and consider it as a form of distraction. I believe that the adage “when in Rome, do as the Romans do” rings true in this case. Nevertheless, close monitoring of the students are required if gaming is to be introduced as the next frontier in the evolution of education since gaming can be a boon or a bane for students and adults alike.
Out of these new mediums I have identified, I find gaming to be the most favourable to our personal development despite its various flipsides and drawbacks. I am not saying this because of the fact that I am an educator but also because I feel that online gaming – as long as it has not reached the level of addition – is something that we can control, both in terms of the gaming duration and the type/amount of interaction we have with others. We can choose to end the game or any online conversation easily but when it comes to the other mediums, we can’t – the primary reason being that when we are online in a gaming environment, there’s no professional obligation for us to stay online, unlike in the workplace. However, we can’t free ourselves from our responsibilities of checking emails (especially when it comes to important emails in the workplace), we can’t just ignore a colleague’s message relating to workon MSN and we can’t just pick up our phone when it rings, especially if it’s from your colleagues or your boss. MMORPGs does not demand our instantaneous responses most of the time but emails, handphones and instant messaging systems installed in personal computers/laptops often do.
I am writing this article not from the perspective of a technophobe but rather, from someone who has seen and identified the adverse effects of technology. Although I am not exactly someone who will fully embrace technology (and I don’t think I ever will), I won’t deny the benefits of technology and how it has improved our lives. This article merely serves to highlight the flipside of technology that most of us are unaware of, or have chosen to ignore. I hope that this article will raise awareness on the pitfalls of technology, especially in the workplace and kick start a discussion on ways to overcome such issues on technological hindrances, not to mention advocating a “back to basics ” approach when it comes to providing that personal touch to all communications, regardless of the communication mediums.