Mobile freedom, or enslavement?

Those of us that seek to promote the benefits of agile working or flexible working see the exploitation of mobile technologies as the main enabler of change. Most of us possess a smart phone or laptop and use them regularly, throughout each working day and beyond.

Sales of the iPad, and similar competitive tablet devices, are rocketing. Corporate organisations are considering their mobile IT support strategies. There can be little doubt that we are becoming entranced by the immediate access to information and communication. It all looks great as a means of freeing us from the shackles of working at specific places and at specific times. But, is their a downside?

MIT psychologist, Professor Sherry Turkle (http://www.linkedin.com/pub/sherry-turkle/14/522/982) drew a different side to the potential impact of these technologies. In her book “Alone Together –Why we expect more from Technology and less from each other” – she draws upon the research she has done over the 40 years of the computer age. She speaks of many of her subjects who have withdrawn into using technology as their main means of communicating with “family and friends”. Throughout that period, technologies have replaced what were rich, direct, face to face conversations with a blitz of superficial messages delivered in a way which avoid people from confronting another person directly. Many young people today live their lives around social network sites and would rather text their friends than speak to them on the phone or directly face to face.

Whilst reading her book on my iPad (!) on a commute into London the other day, I glanced up to look at my other travellers and found a good 80% in my carriage were doing something with their BlackBerries/iPhones.   Again, this week we saw in an Ofcom (UK) report, “A Nation Addicted to Smartphones“, a real concern over addiction to the smart phone. Apparently, over a quarter of adults and nearly half of teenagers in the UK own a smart phone, and 81 per cent use it to make calls every day. Not to say that this is bad in itself, but Ofcom estimates that 37 per cent of adults and 60 per cent of teenagers in theUK say that they are ‘highly addicted’. The mind boggles with the  statistic – 22 per cent of adults use their smart phone in the bathroom.

In China, where there are estimated to be over 400m users connected to the internet, the authorities were so concerned over addiction to the internet that in 2005 a residential unit was set up in Beijing – now there are 200 organisations in China offering a variety of therapies from bootcamps to electro-shock treatments. ‘Wired’ covered this last year, in an article “Obsessed with the Internet: a tale from China“.

Internet Addiction Disorder, recognised in the mid-1990s, is being considered by psychologists as being now sufficiently serious to add to the official list of mental disorders, as covered in this academic journal.

Another symptom of our addiction that we all experience is the email overload problem of which we all suffer and complain, but only add to by our own behaviour.

So how do we manage our addictive behaviours, that enslave us in technologies that offer the opportunity for so much freedom?

Do we ban their use when in meetings and during meals? Do we have smart phone free zones such as in cinemas? Do we treat excessive use as a mental disorder? Do we, perhaps, put health warning messages on phones?

Whatever the solution, we need to be mindful of the risks that our own behaviour towards these technologies presents, and we need to moderate our dependency. Consideration of others, and “doing to others what you would wish to be done by” wouldn’t be a bad way of thinking.

Author: Graham Jervis, PhD, is a Director of Advanced Workplace Associates Ltd, London, UK

http://www.linkedin.com/in/grahamjervis

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