Every morning Mark Pesce resists the urge to dive into the digital world without turning his mind to meditation.
As a technology futurist and author, he has every reason to do otherwise. Yet he admits you can’t expect to survive without regular time out in a world where the pace of innovation keeps increasing.
This week two names that have come to dominate people’s lives rolled out new products – Apple launched the iPad mini, only six weeks after it released the latest iPad and iPhone, and Microsoft launched its latest, and possibly last, operating system, Windows 8.
It seems gadget-obsessed consumers just can’t get enough.
Australia ranks fourth in the world behind South Korea, Japan and Sweden for active mobile broadband subscriptions per 100 inhabitants with a score of 82.7 per cent, the International Telecommunications Union reports.
Globally, consumers are also wrapped up in pursuit of the latest: it took Apple four years to sell 100 million iPhones, then just 2.5 years to sell 100 million iPads. Apple analyst Horace Dediu predicts the gap will close again with 100 million iPad minis sold by the end of 2013 – a little more than 12 months.
However, people are starting to ask what impact this rapid pace of technology adoption and innovation is having on Australian society, families, education and workplace productivity. Are we technology’s masters or its servants?
“The whole culture is like a giant two-year-old. We’re over-excited and we’re going to need some nap time,” Pesce says. “We’re starting to get this sense that we have to find balance again.”
If we have swung too far into the digital world, it’s because we’ve been seduced by what Pesce describes as the joy of connecting to anyone, anywhere using social media and mobile devices.
And it’s been pushed along by the technology revolution that gives manufacturers the ability to launch new devices at faster rates.
Steven D’Alessandro, senior lecturer in marketing at Macquarie University, is under no illusions about where it’s taking us.
Students just don’t pay attention any more, he says, except for when exam time rolls around and they catch up by feverishly downloading online class notes and digital recordings.
D’Alessandro and his colleagues have just completed a study of 1600 people and their smartphone switching habits. The results are telling.
Thirty per cent of respondents said they switch telecommunications carriers simply because they want a new handset, regardless of service quality and price. At the same time, 16 per cent of people switched carriers every year, and 44 per cent planned to switch carriers within the next two years.
Such rapid turnover is another sign smartphones have become fashion accessories, D’Alessandro says. But he says it will have a more profound impact in the long run. We’re losing our ability to think deeply because smartphones and tablets encourage us to skim, scan and flick between competing sources of content and entertainment.
It’s an issue for younger generations too. A survey released this week by UK communications regulator Ofcom reports internet use by young children will soon exceed the amount of time spent watching television. Thirty-seven per cent of children aged three to four surf the internet on a PC, laptop or netbook.
They’re following the lead of 12- to 15-year-olds in the UK who, for the first time, now spend an equal amount of time surfing the internet and watching TV – an estimated 17 hours for each activity per week.
In that sort of highly engaged environment, it’s the parents who need to set a good example by resisting their own digital urges, argues Mark Aufflick, an independent software developer and Apple expert.
“Doctors are worried about parents being distracted by iPhones when they should be caring for their kids,” he says.
He also believes educators should play a greater role in schools to help kids learn efficient methods of conducting online research, or ways to look after your real-world friends on social media networks.
Yet for all these concerns, new technologies don’t have to master us by default. In Aufflick’s case, his reluctant adoption of the BlackBerry many years ago let him leave the office and still deal with unexpected emergencies. “I could check email anywhere,” he says.
Today, he thinks we still have the ability to take control and learn how to gain similar productivity advantages in other areas of life. “As a society we need to ask how we can accelerate that learning,” he says.
Dr Stephen Kirchner, a research fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies and a senior lecturer in economics at the University of Technology, Sydney, also sides with people, not the machines.
People will easily find ways of being entertained or staying busy with, or without, smartphones. “I don’t think the technology really tells us very much about what people are going to use it for,” he says.
And besides, few statisticians can accurately measure the dollar value of the two key outcomes we’re seeking amid the technological onslaught: productivity and more leisure time.
“It is something that is very hard to measure, especially at a macro level. Statisticians measure the impact of labour and capital on output, and whatever else is left over they call productivity,” he says.
Ultimately, our behaviour could be moderated by sheer necessity. “I basically shut down my email and Twitter and other internet-based distractions while I work,” Kirchner says.