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How Technology Changes Our Perception of Time

The real cost of our inability to unplug.

Image courtesy of Unsplash.

How technology changes our time perception

A manager of a popular New York restaurant was puzzled: in spite of the venue being full and prices all-time high, the profits kept declining. Analysis showed that the only thing that changed over the last decade was that all visitors now had smartphones and were so busy taking selfies and instagramming food that took much longer to make an order and eat it. Frustrated manager wrote a blog post, asking customers to be more considerate. It went viral, and eventually inspired a number of restaurants around the world to ban people from using their devices or offer a discount in order to minimize time spent at a table.

This is just one, albeit ridiculous, example of how technology has intervened with our perception of time and reality. Others are less innocent, though.

Do you often feel there’s not enough time for everything? As we are exposed to an increasing amount of information thanks to tech, our time indeed shrinks. For instance, US knowledge workers waste 25% of their time dealing with data streams, costing the economy $997 billion annually, according to Information Overload Research Group.

An induced send of urgency

This sense of the lack of time is artificially generated by how internet products are designed. “For example, a hotel website tells you that there are only 3 rooms left at the price, or an airline adds “we’ll hold this price for 10 minutes” feature to its website, says UX designer Neil Turner. – These design elements add an extra pressure on the buyer as he thinks he doesn’t have time to check anywhere else, and forces him to close a deal immediately”.

Google’s “real time” search results is another example of how tech design artificially creates a sense of urgency. While some results are organic, others are not. For instance, when looking for airline flights and hotel search, Google will show you sponsored results listings first. Try yourself typing in “hospitals in London” (not sponsored search) versus “hotels in London” (sponsored search) and you will see a difference. Not only the first listings that you will see will be an ad (marked with an ad sign next to them), but also the search results displayed on the map and below the map that offer you several booking options ARE sponsored. However, Google doesn’t make it explicit through design that it is making money on it, and so you end up thinking it’s just trying to be helpful to find things really fast.

Social media is yet another example of an artificially induced speed. It encourages us to share fast whatever we see. Research by Chartbeat showed that most people share without reading it. The trouble with distributing and acquiring information this way is that it leads to mosaic thinking and contributes to overall noise and anxiety. When we receive random facts stripped off of any context, we eventually we start seeing the world as a number of non-related bits of information, and our lives — as a number of events that are very loosely connected to each other.

Human time vs computer time

Before the tech revolution, our time perception was based on the human speed, a metabolic speed of our bodies, emotions and reflexes. With the tech progress, though, we are forced to function on a tech speed, which contradicts our human rhythms.

Deep understanding and learning requires time. So when we try processing data quicker than in our normal rhythm, we risk making superficial conclusion, and the quality of our work suffers. Working under pressure induced by tech rhythms is like putting your brain in the state of emergency every minute. It doesn’t make you a better professional: on the contrary, being under time pressure and in constant stress is exhausting your nervous system.

While struggling to accomplish things in a short time period, our brain starts preferring processes that don’t require as much time as deep understanding does. So dopamine-releasing pleasures, such as browsing through social media or news sites in search of something new and exciting, become our first choice. In the absence of time to think deeply, fast food for brains fills the space and digital procrastination becomes a wide-spread habit. Superficial information consumption and thinking proliferates.

The culture of slow

Society seems to be developing the antibodies to this ever increasing speed by developing the culture of “slow” (well-described by Carl Honoré in his book “In Praise of Slow”), slow food being the most famous of them. These activities aren’t actually slow, they are just based on our normal human body speed and rhythms, as opposed to the speed dictated by technology.

Nick is a banker, and I used to joke how fast he finishes his meals, while switching between his two smartphones. Since he signed up for a “Mindful eating” course, he changed a lot. He is more present, does not rush with his meals, and does not pull out his devices when at the table. He also stopped overeating as a result of paying more attention to his body needs and less attention to his smartphones.

Mindfulness-based practices is another “antibody” that quickly became mainstream in highly stressed Western societies. After doing a 10-day Vipassana Paul, software developer and a friend of mine, stopped digital procrastination and looks much happier.

Mushrooming of yoga centres is another sign of “kicking back”. Google Trends curiously suggests that the numbers of requests for “smartphone” rise at the same pace as “yoga” since 2010, suggesting there might be a link between the two. Chiara, a market researcher who has recently qualified as a yoga teacher, says that yoga practice helps her slow down and get in touch with her “real self”. As a result, now she pays more attention to what she does online.

If not in yoga, office workers immerse themselves into hobbies like carving wooden spoons as a “calming antidote to looking at a computer all day”. Glamorous upmarket shops in Notting Hill area in London now sell board games, another clear sign of the rebound of a “real life pace” culture that appeals to human, not computer times.

Challenge: Slow down and take a pause

Think about one digital activity which tends to speed up your life. Do you eat with your phone in your hand? Do you rush to check your mailbox first thing in the morning? Next time you do it, deliberately slow down and pause next time you do it. For instance, postpone checking a new message. Notice any change in how you feel.

Slowing down gives one better focus, and make fewer mistakes. On a physiological level, it reduces the amount of cortisol, the hormone of stress. It also makes you eat less, as you allow more time to your brain to realize if you are not hungry anymore.

This is an excerpt from Anastasia Dedyukhina’s new book, Homo Distractus: Fight for your choices and identity in the digital age, to be published in early 2018. To pre-order it, sign up at igg.me/at/homodistractus.

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