I met Bill Gates once in my life. It was in 2005, while I was studying software engineering at the University of Waterloo, and was at the impressionable age of 20. He came to campus to speak, and as a student leader I was invited to participate. Here I was, a software engineer getting to meet and hear the leader of the largest (and at least at the time) most influential software company in the world. Kind of a big deal.
Bill Gates spoke about many things, what I still remember to this day was a vision he shared about how communications technology would evolve. He shared that “in the future” (now?), we would not have the need for multiple phone numbers, email addresses and ways to get in touch with us. Each of us will have an “ID” and all of our connected devices (and the cloud) will be smart enough to know what information to let through to us, and at what time.
If we were in a work meeting, we wouldn’t be interrupted unless it was from a direct family member. If we were having dinner with our family or close friends, we wouldn’t be interrupted by work. If we are traveling overseas and in a different time zone, our incoming communication would be adjusted to take that into account and not wake us up in the middle of the night, unless of course it was called for.
This vision made a lot of sense to me at the time and as a technologist, I know we have the capabilities to build this type of future today. But we seem to have gone in the opposite direction…
Breaking or fixing?
If I give you a hammer, you can use it to either fix things or break things. And I feel the way we’re using communication tools like email, social media and instant messaging, we are breaking things more than we’re fixing them. And while technology platforms like Google, Facebook, Snapchat are monetizing our attention, they are hammers at the end of the day and it is our choice on how we use them.
Multitasking is a myth and rather than kid ourselves into believing that notifications are not costing us (and our employers, ahem…) time and money, it’s time to become aware that these tools have not been designed in a way that serves our needs (unfortunately).
I’ve been curious about how to fix things and have been running many experiments. The journey over the past little while has been really great. At Polar, one year ago we decided to reduce internal meetings and the results showed that we were successful in doing so.
I’ve downloaded an app that has helped make me aware of how I’m using my phone, and also took email off my phone (5 years ago). And setup a simple unsubscribe rule in Gmail to filter out some of the noise.
There are many little steps we can all take to take back control of our attention, as unfortunately Bill Gates was wrong in that our communication technology did not evolve in a way to serve us.