Master or Minion? Technology Tyranny

Often in the history of technological innovation, the design of a machine determined its position in our lives: the car to the garage and roadways; the assembly-line to the factory; the telephone and answering machine to our wall or desk. Most of us probably haven’t given this much thought, but it makes sense that the physical properties of the machine have a foundational impact on how – and where – we use it.

So it was that without really thinking through the possible ramifications, we embraced the wireless-computer-that-could-make-calls-and-fit-in-a-pocket machine. And unwittingly took it everywhere we went – including our bedside table and other not-to-be-named locations.

Mesmerized, we give it the attention we used to give to the world around us ‒ to a family member, a neighbour, a colleague, or a friend. We interrupt conversations (“Just let me get this”); forget our own children (“You can’t find Little Suzy?!); zone-out (“But Officer; I was just sending ….”).

It’s time we learned how to make technology work for us instead of the other way around. Techno-experts like Douglas Rushkoff, who initially extolled the virtues of digital technologies, are now saying we’ve embraced them too rapidly and unthinkingly ‒ that instead of optimizing machines, we’re being optimized for machines.

In his latest book (1), he lays down ten re-balancing commands…three of which are:

  1. Do Not Be Always On. Engage with a technology as a choice, not an expectation.
  2. Be Yourself. Maintain a strict sense of online identity. It will strengthen the best parts of you, not the worst, and bring out the best in others.
  3. Live in Person. Technology’s strength is its ability to connect globally ‒ over distance. Don’t use it when you can connect locally.

Failing some significant and unexpected new bandwidth innovations, the looming spectrum crunch will probably also help re-balance usage.  At its annual 2013 Technology, Media and Telecommunications Conference, the global consultancy and accounting firm Deloitte stated that carriers worldwide can’t keep pace with device adoption given “the average smartphone drives 35 times more traffic than a typical cell phone.”

The company went on to say that by 2016, the likely outcome of the predicted shortage will be most intense in cities; on networks with the most subscribers; in peak wireless hours. “Users can expect wireless ‘rush hours’ to be characterized by two to three times as many failed attempts to connect, three to four times as many dropped calls or frozen web browsing, and both 3G and 4G speeds 50-90 percent lower than expected. In the worst situations, download speeds may be under 1Mbit/s for lengthy periods of time, making video streaming impossible and even web browsing difficult.” (2)  At the time of writing, this threat still appears to be real. Apparently the International Telecommunication Union (the UN’s special agency for information and communication technologies) will be discussing the spectrum problem at a 2015 meeting.

But don’t wait for technology to solve your problem for you. Take the initiative and take back control of your life. Use the “off” button. You may be amazed at how good you feel.

If you’re terrified of what your colleagues, boss, clients, or others will think of you (or do to you) if you “dare” to unplug, give them a heads up and give them some options. For example, if you want to unplug for a week (maybe for the first time in years) but feel too scared to do it, set a specific timeframe each day that you will check email (say 8-9am). Let your key contacts know about it, and also put it on your email auto-reply. Then you’re free for the rest of each day instead of incessantly checking what your little master has to say each time it buzzes or chimes. What a concept! Better yet, set one touch-point mid-way through the week (Wednesday morning from 8-9am) and communicate it in the same way.

Then you will begin to taste the feeling of that oh-so-wonderful word again: freedom.

Go ahead, make your day. Your loved ones will be thrilled – and you just might be too.


(1)  Rushkoff D. (2011) Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age. Brooklyn, NY: Soft Skull Press


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