Has Technology created the Age of Distraction?

If you talk to a lot of the engineers and dreamers in Silicon Valley, especially ones over 35, they will most likely tell you that they are fans of science fiction. This genre of movies, comic books and books were huge in the first half of the last century and remained somewhat steady in the latter part of the last century when most of the engineers of today were born.

That is not to say that science fiction has gone away, but only to point out that it had a significant influence on those creating much of today’s technology. 

I was born in the latter part of the last century, and like many of my geek friends back then we were all into science fiction at all levels. We loved the futuristic ideas presented and reveled in the good vs. evil that permeates the science fiction realm. 

Science Fiction and Real Life

But there is one theme in science fiction that always troubled me, and that is when technology runs amok and gets out of the control of its creators or masters. I had nightmares for months after I read Frankenstein. Often when this happens, it sets up the drama behind the science fiction story line and the main characters who have to spend tons of creative energy to try and either reverse the out of control technology or at least contain it.

I have been involved in dozens of technology projects, programs and ideas I have to admit that very seldom in our design or business process discussions do we spend much time or energy on what the negative impact the technology we were and are creating would have on our world or lives.

Instead, we mostly live by an engineering mantra that is often embodied in the concept that we create it because we can. 
Indeed, in most cases, we create technology because we see a need or to fill a gap or function that needs to be solved but too often we create something that may not have any commercial value or needs to exist at all.

I have recently spent time with the major execs in the security and cyber security space, and perhaps no other area in our digital world underlines the negative nature of what technology hath wrought. IT execs tell me that security is now about 25% of their IT budget spend. Each day we hear of hackers taking aim at our identities, financial networks, power grids, etc. and in a most recent development, malware designed to taking our PC’s, laptops and smartphone’s hostage till we pay a ransom fee to get our data back.

When the folks at DARPA and other agencies created the Internet backbone, the idea was to have a medium for them to share scientific data and information around the world in a timely way. But as the Internet has evolved it has become the medium for just about any communication, commerce and yes, hacking that impacts us in both good and bad ways.

Living in the Age of Distraction

But it has also created what I believe has become the age of distraction. I was recently in New York and had to drive from Northern NY to the Elmira area on New York Freeways. For the first time, I saw signs that said “Next texting stop is 3 miles ahead. Don’t text and drive.”

Most states have already outlawed texting while driving and yet we hear almost weekly of traffic accidents caused by drivers distracted while texting and driving.

The level of distraction caused by technology is at an all -time high. While on vacation in Maui last month I was stunned to see people everywhere pulling out their smartphones and checking them while walking around beautiful Lahaina and other areas of this island. Then during a dinner with my wife, my son and his wife and our two granddaughters at Kimo’s beachside restaurant in Lahaina, I caught all of us looking at our phones at the same time as we waited for our food even though we had a gorgeous scenery right in front of us.

I don’t believe Steve Jobs and Apple ever dreamed that the iPhone and smartphones could cause us to have some much distraction while using them. I don’t think Mark Zuckerberg when he created Facebook, foresaw how distracting and addictive Facebook would become. I don’t think Niantic, the creators of Pokemon Go fully thought out the ramifications of their app that caused two people who were playing Pokemon walk off a cliff or for that matter, my wife who has become addicted to this game, walking into a tree or light post when chasing down some Pokemon Go character. 

The current engineering generation has been so focused on creating new technology and does not truly think through the potential consequences of what they are creating. While some companies like Intel are very forward thinking and have multiple anthropologists and ethics professionals on their staff, they are the exception. But all serious tech companies need to be hiring folks with a humanities background too, especially in ethics, anthropology, humanities, psychology, etc.

In the July-August issue of Harvard Business Review, Author JM Olejarz writes about “Liberal Arts in the Data Age.” 
He shares some important points about the importance of adding the disciplines of liberal arts and the humanities to the technical curriculum that today’s engineers are only focused on.  This is a very important perspective, and I encourage you to read this article to get another view of how our educational leaders need to think about teaching the engineers of tomorrow. 

Of course, the cat is out of the bag when it comes to how technology causes the distraction, and as a parent and grandparent, I need to be more proactive in my own family to reign in the excesses of distraction caused by the tech in our lives.
My hope is that given what we now know about the potential impact technology can have that we as an industry become more responsible in not only what we create but also thinking through the impact of our technology on our lives and our world. 

Published by

Tim Bajarin

Tim Bajarin is the President of Creative Strategies, Inc. He is recognized as one of the leading industry consultants, analysts and futurists covering the field of personal computers and consumer technology. Mr. Bajarin has been with Creative Strategies since 1981 and has served as a consultant to most of the leading hardware and software vendors in the industry including IBM, Apple, Xerox, Compaq, Dell, AT&T, Microsoft, Polaroid, Lotus, Epson, Toshiba and numerous others.

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