Is technology helping us?
I have been wondering if technology is helping us, or not. A colleague told me that using email during the day equates to about a 10 point reduction in IQ, because of the interruption and change of focus and reduced concentration time - and whilst I can't find the source to back this up, it wouldn't surprise me. Now, whether it's actually true for a younger generation, more used to technological multi-tasking, is another issue, but it's certainly an indication that technology causes problems as well as solving them.
It has its successes: for example, I am in love with my Sky+ box - the ability to record programmes easily onto the hard disk, to have them listed onscreen and play them back whenever I like it - has given me a lot of time back. I can have a full weekend away, then watch some key programmes when I get back late on Sunday. I can pause live t.v. and deal with some urgent email, or a phone or skype call, and then resume it later, having missed nothing. And it works because it's easy to use. Now, I liked the Tivo system, which was much the same but also learned your viewing preferences and would choose to record programmes it thought you might like. Much more a success in the US than here, I think it failed on marketing and investment grounds, not on functionality ones. But this is not about the triumph of the well marketed and funded over the potentially better technologies: the point is that a very useful system had found its way into my house, and I like it, and it helps me manage my time.
But everywhere there are examples of technology making our lives more complex. My mobile phone now does everything you could possibly wish - except make phone calls reliably. I have had a mobile phone since the bricks first made an appearance, and once needed to carry a rucksac just so I could move the phone around easily - if I dropped it into my trouser pockets they either fell down, or crippled me if I tried to sit. I like mobile phones, or at least, the freedom to work from wherever you happen to be - but being able to actually make a call is a prerequisite. I had a conference call on Friday, and my phone crashed and rebooted four times during the call. A colleague in Swansea, Prof Harold Thimbleby makes the point that technologies move so fast that companies never get to second or third generations in which problems are ironed out - the market moves on and they offer another new product, with a new set of problems that users will be exposed to.
But I think the real problem runs somewhat deeper. Technology makes it easy for me to check train times from my sofa, or book flights to more distant destinations - and yet in the old days, I'd ask a travel agent to do it and actually spend less time doing it myself. It seems that technology has allowed us all to do more - but also it is now expected that we will also do more ourselves, and that doesn't necessarily make our lives easier.