After eating lunch at my usual haunt sometime last year, I realized when I returned to the firm that my iPhone was missing. Of course, I went through my car and rechecked my pockets multiple times to no avail.
I called the restaurant, which was kind enough to turn the place upside down and also check the parking lot. Again, no luck.
As the panic set in and I gave up on retracing my steps, I quickly moved to secure another phone to minimize interruptions to my communications with clients, friends, and family.
But as luck would have it, I happened to be wearing an iWatch connected to my phone. I received a text message from my watch that a family had found the phone in the parking lot. Their grandson was able to retrieve my number and send me a text. They later met me at the restaurant to give me my phone. I paid for their dinner as a thank you, and went on my way, my digital life restored.
But on the way home, I started to wonder: what if they hadn’t found my phone? How long could I go without being connected?
Statistically, probably not long. In today’s age, people spend an average of 6.5 hours a day online—more hours than most people sleep. Over four billion people use the internet, making those without it at a significant disadvantage. In fact, much of our professional and social interaction is now conducted over the Internet through platforms like email and social media, often accessed through a handheld device like a smartphone or a tablet. Mobile social usage is increasing about 13% per year to reach over 3.2 billion users. Facebook remains the most significant social media platform with 2.1 billion users, though platforms like Instagram and Snapchat are finding an audience with the younger generations. In many ways, we are always expected to be “plugged in,” creating a digital culture that has radically changed the way we act as individuals and as a society.
For business purposes, the benefit of embracing our new digital culture is evident. With the world getting smaller and demands on the global marketplace getting bigger, maximizing connections and real-time communications with less effort is essential. With digital technology, especially smartphones, almost everyone has real-time access to information and the ability to share it with others. We could, in theory, travel and explore the world without leaving the sofa. We can automate or minimize the time spent on mundane activities such as shopping, food delivery, and transportation. On a personal level, we now can share and keep up with a large number of people, find old friends or distant relatives, secure a new job or home, and take advantage of a variety of livestream entertainment. For the most part, life has become more comfortable.
However, it is also possible to be “too connected.” Studies suggest that, especially among younger generations, technology can lead to less real personal and conversational interaction. Compared to twenty years ago, it has become harder to interact with others without checking our phones. Nowadays, could we get through a meal or watch our children in a school play or sporting endeavor without turning on our phones?
And for all the connections that technology, and social media, in particular, can foster, it’s the depth of those connections that matter. In my business, my social group pretty closely follows the Dunbar number, which is the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships, ranging from casual acquaintances (roughly 100-200) to good friends (about 50), to intimate friends (no more than 5). With social media enabling us to have thousands of “Friends” on Facebook, our definition of friendship might be changing to something more superficial. When communication can be as simple as a text message or comment on a social media post, it can be harder to have an actual phone discussion or face-to-face encounter that leads to a deeper connection.
The constant state of connectedness has ramifications for employees, too. With some companies providing smartphones or laptops, employees might be expected to always be “on call” and able to work outside of regular work hours, increasing work-related stress. To combat what they consider a growing problem, the French Ministry of Labor has instituted a “right to disconnect law,” where companies with a staff of at least 50 people are required to establish evening and weekend hours when the team is not allowed to send or respond to emails.
Not a perfect solution when dealing internationally. With technology more of a mainstay in our personal and professional lives, I prefer self-regulation to reinstate a sense of work-life balance and allow us to disconnect from our phones and reconnect with our lives.
The bottom line is that our digital culture is not going anywhere, but that it should be used purposefully and in moderation. We should always remain present and engaged, not just texting it in. Focus on quality of connections rather than quantity, and know when to step away or take a break from the technology.