Too Much Infotechnology Can Lead to Brain Overload

Steve Rubel on Digital Communications

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Conventional wisdom says the internet will continue to become more central in our lives, bringing with it productivity gains. And for more than 15 years, internet innovations have revolutionized marketing.

Culturally, however, there are some signs of a backlash against technology -- even among the most addicted. This trend is worth watching because it could slow down or even derail the digital-marketing train.

Over the last decade, Americans have become hopelessly addicted to information and busyness. We have all overheard people bragging about their back-to-back schedules and massive e-mail inboxes. There's a certain respect that flows to the individual who can manage 500 daily e-mails, almost as though he or she is the king of the jungle.

Steve Rubel
Photo: JC Bourcart
Steve Rubel is a marketing strategist and blogger. He is senior VP in Edelman's Me2Revolution practice.
We crave information and busyness because it makes us feel wanted, needed and, above all, important. However, too much of a good thing is never ideal. And now that we have a host of new distractions such as Facebook and Twitter, many people have truly maxed out. Human attention can't scale, as much as we would like it to.

The successes of blogs such as Lifehacker and Lifehack and books such as "Getting Things Done" and "The Four-Hour Workweek" show that lots of people are eager for a quick fix. However, the data are even more damning. A Basex study published in December found that the pressure to respond in real time to instant messages, e-mails and text messages cost the U.S. economy $650 billion in 2006. Separately, annual productivity growth has slowed from to 1.6% in 2007 from 4.1% in 2002, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The dirty little secret is that the internet may be hindering our productivity.

If enough people get the willpower to say "enough," net spending on gadgets and time spent online could decline. In a worst-case scenario, companies would retrench R&D spending, and innovation would slow. That's just one extreme possibility -- and the most unlikely.

The X factor here is actually a Y factor: Generation Y. These kids grew up in an age of information saturation. This generation has coping skills that most of us simply do not.

I am hopeful that as Gen Y comes of age, the likelihood of a doomsday scenario where people cut back on internet time remains unlikely. That's not to say there won't be pain, however, in the interim until Gen Y supplants the baby boomers in spending power and influence.
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