Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Our lives in the role of technology

Via a link from Vicki’s blog, I found Marshall Kirkpatrick’s email interview with Gina Trapani (Lifehacker) about the impact of technology on our lives and providing some perspective on blogging. Like Gina, “I'm a firm believer in technology as an enabling force for any individual or organization.” Like her I have worked for an organisation where technology has taken over “to the point where you'd instant message the person that sat next to you on your computer instead of turning your head and talking aloud” although in my case it was a way of avoiding tension in relationships. She refers to a low-tech solution using post its, flags, drawing pins and the like, that worked for everyone and says, “That was a big lesson for me - software doesn't always solve the problem”. I totally agree! Not to sound one-uppish, but I learned this lesson some time ago. These are some examples of how I’ve opted for a low-tech solution that has worked better than hi-tech might have done.

A couple of years back, I went for a job interview for an IT trainer role. I was asked to deliver a 10 minute presentation about myself, which obviously served the dual purpose of giving them background about me and demonstrating my presentation skills. I just knew that all the other candidates would go with PowerPoint and, while I think it’s a wonderful package, I believe that death by PowerPoint is an increasing danger. Instead, I printed out loads of images on A4 paper that represented my life: a picture of the map of South Africa with circles around the places where key events in my life had happened; a sad face behind bars to represent my years at boarding school; a stereotypical theatre shot to represent my years at drama school; a wedding picture; pictures of my boys; that kind of thing. As I spoke, I stuck these pictures up on the walls all around the room (which was quite large). At the end, they were surrounded by me – and I left the pictures there until the end of the interview. I decided not to take the job, but several months later, they called me back to make a new offer. There had been some reorganisation and only one of the three people who interviewed me was the same as before, but one of them turned to the other and asked if I was the one she had been told about with the pictures all over the walls. Apparently it had gone over a storm and was a talking point for some time afterwards.

For almost two decades I taught people how to use spreadsheets, first Lotus, and then Excel as the balance of market-share shifted. The bulk of my training was delivered to new or low-end users and almost universally, I found that they had a problem grasping the concept of relative and absolute references. Once I had given an introductory example to set the scene, I would switch off the plasma screen and step away from the computer. I then used to explain the concept by means of an allegory about gorgeous drum majorettes or 3 year-old ballet dancers giving a concert (depending on the demographics of the group). I won’t try to explain how it worked, but it always involved me deliberately making a complete clot of myself doing an imitation of one of those groups of people. Every teacher/trainer knows the joy of that moment when you see the light go on in the face of the learner. The ridiculous little “dance” seldom failed to herald that moment. Not to mention having everyone in stitches!

Another point in Gina’s input that I found myself nodding as I read was that “constant connectivity and an interrupt-driven existence can really degrade people's morale and productivity levels.” Yesterday I read a post from Kathy Sierra that overlapped with this sort of thinking – touching on how the television can sap us of energy. We think we’re too tired to do anything but watch telly, but in fact, we’re tired because we do nothing but watch telly! I can remember when my grandfather used to resent the intrusion of the phone ringing at an inconvenient moment - it really riled him. His indignation made such an impact on me that I now have a rule at home that we leave the answering machine to pick up calls during meals.

Nowadays, it’s not just in our homes, and it’s not just the phone. Mobile technology means we can be reached anywhere, anytime by phone, email, fax. We can carry our offices with us, and can be about our business 24/7. Even being on holiday abroad is no guarantee of escape – and believe me, I have first hand experience of this!

Having Outlook (or whatever you use instead) open as you work can totally hijack your plan for the day, as you find yourself compelled to attend to the mounting number of little red exclamation marks, rather than addressing the issues on your to do list. It has the potential to put one into the passenger’s seat of one’s own life. If that’s not demoralising, I don’t know what is! There is a creeping apathy that results from this: a kind of “whatever” attitude of someone who feels powerless to direct their own path.

To end on a slightly more upbeat note, there was one final point in the exchange that I found interesting: “The important thing to remember is a blog is like a garden - it needs constant tending and watering.” Nice thought.


Vicki Davis @coolcatteacher said...

Its like Steven Covey's four quadrants of living -- just because something is urgent DOESN'T MEAN it is important!

Anonymous said...

Too right! I can't remember where I read it, but someone once talked about "doing the urgent at the expense of the imperative" - or something along those lines. It might even have been Steven Covey. Maintaining a healthy balance today requires a lot more self-discipline than it used to. The line of least resistance is not the one to take. Nor is oiling the wheel that squeaks the loudest - that road takes us to Kathy Sierra's post about the glib winning and everybody losing as a result (

Anonymous said...

Whoops! Let's try that link again: