Will “Realtime” Doom Us All?

Is Neo already using FriendFeed?

Is Neo already using FriendFeed?

Blame Malcolm Gladwell and his book “Blink” (with that awful subtitle: “The Power of Thinking Without Thinking”).  Gladwell’s book is a bit more complicated than it appears, but it popularized the idea that snap judgments were of better value than thoughtful contemplation.

Gladwell argues that making a quick decision within the first two seconds is often more beneficial than well-researched and careful analysis.  Now this is certainly true when you’re fleeing from an angry grizzly bear or about to drive your car into a brick wall (snap judgments: run and swerve).  But are quick decisions really the way to go for philosophy?  Or literature?  Music?  Movie making?  Is it true for choosing a wife or a husband?  Should we make a snap decision to buy a house?  Or to take our next job?

Do we want corporate leaders making quick decisions about the fate of companies?  Or politicians using snap judgments to pass laws?  Or to go to war?

The web has been a ferocious enabler of Gladwell’s thesis.  Case in point: we’re on the verge of the “Realtime” revolution.  Social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, FriendFeed and others are pushing us toward realtime information exchange.  FriendFeed is in the lead with its new interface that features a scrolling screen of data and updates tumbling down your computer screen.  Depending on the number of people you’re subscribed to – blink and you could miss a valuable piece of information.  We’re living in the age of instant everything, including decisions.

The argument for realtime, of course, is that information wants to be free (this is becoming quite the cliche).  And that these social media platforms are search enabled so that if you miss that crucial posting – you can always find it later.  Author Nicholas Carr has been a critic of realtime information flow and recently posted about the dangers of publishers like the New York Times embracing the concept:

“The New York Times… took the realtime plunge with the launch of Times Wire, a jittery twittery service that the paper describes as “a continuously updated stream of the latest stories and blog posts.” The news scroll updates every minute, as fresh stories flicker into consciousness and old ones flicker out. Times Wire doesn’t just give the Gray Lady a facelift; it jabs an IV into the ashen flesh of her forearm and hooks her up to a Red Bull drip bag. It’s Times Wired.. Not only is all the news fit to stream, but realtime renders all news equal… Realtime is a harsh mistress. She wants everything, from androgynous 80s pop stars to terminally ill world leaders, and she wants it now.”

Carr’s argument is that realtime flow diminishes important news and elevates the trivial.  On the Times Wire, for example, celebrity gossip appears along side of the Pope’s visit to the Middle East.  There’s nothing to distinguish which item carries more weight.  Advocates of realtime flow would counter that that’s the point.  The value of news, they say, is subjective to the consumer of it.

But Carr and others worry that this constant barage of realtime news – important and trivial – will destroy our ability to absorb it fuly and then contemplate the meaning of it.  Carr sees realtime as a return to the past – when humans were forced to live in realtime in order to survive.  He argues that real space – the time between the information flow – is when great works and thinking occur.  This is what sets us apart from other animals.  This might seem extreme – worrying if Twitter and FriendFeed will doom us all – but Carr makes some compelling and disturbing observations about the trend.

ReadWriteWeb’s Alex Iskoid predicted more than a year ago that realtime information flow was inevitable.  And that with realtime the stress of our daily lives would increase:

“The bad news is that real-time is not going away. We are not going to settle for less than right now. This means that the future holds more and more stress. As we evolve into a society that demands more information and more information processing immediately, we are also evolving into a society of people under constant stress. The fact that computers are ubiquitous is making it all that much worse. Of course people were stressed last century as well, but in the seventies when you went home for the weekend you, relaxed. Nowadays? No way. There is no 30 minute period in my life that I do not check email. Going off the grid is really hard for many of us. Real-time is not only stressful, it is addictive.”

The real questions that emerge about realtime – other than the longer term consequences that Carr fears – is the effect on workers.  The work week has already been blurred.  Workers at most companies are now always on – Twittering, Facebooking, Blackberrying, mobile phoning and emailing.  Does anyone with a job that involves technology ever really take a vacation anymore?  Or do we all now sneak off for 30-45 minutes to check email?  What are the long-term mental and physical effects of this always-on status of multi-tasking?

What happens when realtime becomes a reality?  In our global economy does that means that the workday will never end?  How can we cope with a business and technology environment that never slows?  What happens when the trivial becomes as important as the serious?  What will the work environment be like when snap judgments and instant decisions become the norm?

I’d be interested in hearing about your experiences and thoughts about realtime.  Are you always on?  Do you think realtime communications is addictive?  Is it beneficial or dangerous or both?  What do you think the future of realtime holds?

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