walking down the street staring at phone
PHOTO: Samuel Zeller

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s recent Congressional appearance concerning the impact of social networks, technology addiction and digital privacy raised more questions than it answered.

As Facebook implications for society at large occupy the headlines, the effects of social (i.e. collaboration) technologies at work are largely being ignored. And while we may be less concerned with digital privacy at work, the same type of networking technology that is transforming the way we communicate at home is also transforming our lives in the workplace.

To understand how new technologies are impacting people in and out of the workplace, I recently sat down with Dr. Paul Root Wolpe, professor of Bioethics at Emory University, where he is director of the Center for Ethics. Below are excerpts from that interview.

Technology Addiction's Lingering Effects

Lavenda: Is Facebook a growing problem?

Wolpe: Facebook addiction is a part of a larger electronic addiction.  Electronic information is very seductive. We can do it by ourselves in our own time, it’s highly stimulating, it’s something that engages us, and it is extraordinarily convenient and easy. In addition, it gives some gratification in terms of a sense of connection to other people; sometimes a very broad sense of connection with people all over the world. Young people who use their phones now and grew up in that environment don’t have to learn how to use it, it comes organically to them through peer relationships. It integrates into their lives in ways that are both healthy, but also in some pretty unhealthy ways.

Lavenda: What are the ethical implications of technology addiction?

Wolpe: I think the single most important problem with the way in which we communicate and with the kind of addictive behavior that people show today is that it removes people one step from real encounters, with actual face-to-face interactions with other people. There are important life skills, there’s important information that one gains in face-to-face interactions that one just simply can’t perceive over electronic communication, even if you can see physically the person you’re talking to, through WhatsApp or FaceTime for example. For example, there is physical touch, smell, sight, movement. When you’re on FaceTime, your face is always stuck right into that mechanism that is communicating.

Related Article: Information Overload Comes in 3 Flavors: Here's How to Combat It

Lavenda: Do you see technology addiction creeping into the workplace, and if so, how does that hurt productivity and creativity?

Wolpe: There is no question that one of the results of electronic [tools] spreading to the workplace is the silo-ing of work. People spend a lot more time at their desks, in front of their computers in situations where before this they would have been engaging in face-to-face interactions. Now, instead of going to talk to someone, you just send them an email. And instead of handing a piece of paper over to someone else and sitting down next to them and discussing what you’re doing, you send the document through email and you hope that your quick email message says everything you need to say.

Lavenda: What tips do you have for how workers can be more mindful or present at work?

Wolpe: Between meetings and email — if I could take both of those things out of my life, I’d have 80 percent more free time. That’s just the way it is today.

Email: At our center, we’ve started a series of three-letter symbols that go into the subject line of an email. For example, ‘EOM’ means ‘end of message;’ that means the text in the subject line is all you really have to know. Don’t bother opening the email. Don’t bother reading it, I just wanted to tell you this one thing. Or ‘ATC’ means ‘action;’ please open this because it contains something you need to do. Don’t put this email your queue to read later.  We’ve tried to use these three letter cues to help us move through email more efficiently.

Meetings: I try to run two kinds of meetings, one which is a Draconian meeting where we have something we need to get done. We do it quickly and efficiently and get out of there. And then other meetings, especially around creative issues which we try to structure for creative thought only; we leave the associated mundane tasks for another time.  

Related Article: Is the Solution to Information Overload More Technology?

Is More Technology the Answer?

Lavenda: Do you think that new technology can help alleviate the use of too much technology?

Wolpe: Here’s the irony of technology. Every technology creates problems that we try to solve with newer technologies. So we’re always creating technologies to solve the problem of older technologies, and these new technologies themselves create problems for which we try to create newer technologies. And we always seem to have too much technology and not enough technology at the same time. And that is the branching tree of technology.

Sometimes technology consolidates. If you look at iPhones and other PDAs, what they try to do is take a lot of disparate technologies and pack them into one. But that will branch out again, it always does.

Let’s look at the next wave of technology, which is both wearable and implantable. When these arrive, we will be implanting five or six different things; then eventually these will consolidate into one implant.  In that sense, technology is both nefarious and subtle. It gets under our skin, both figuratively and literally, and becomes something that we depend on.

This has always been true. The real difference now is the pace. Technology is changing far more rapidly and with far more power than it ever did before. And we’re all racing to keep up with the technology.

This wasn’t true in the 19th century. New technologies would emerge and it would take years to integrate them. It was a much slower pace. Now we’ve got horizons of a year or less in which a new iWatch or the new Android or whatever comes out. And then we feel obsolete because we’ve got six-month old technology. When that happens, technology becomes a burden rather than a boon. We have to be careful, and before we adopt it, we need to ask ourselves, has this technology really improved and does it really give me something that I don’t already have?

A video of the interview can be seen here.