Unintended Consequences


A Hyperbolic Gedankenexperiment In Five Acts

I. Modern Times

The industrial revolution began in the 18th century. The steam engine, the cotton gin, the sewing machine, the Bessemer method of processing steel, dynamite; a variety of inventions and subsequent refinements led to an increasingly industrialized, urbanized society.

But by the mid to late 19th century, it was clear that there were undesirable side effects to these changes. Many urban centers were horribly polluted (the famous London fog was in large part a toxic byproduct of industry), traditional modes of living became economically infeasible, and people struggled to adapt to both the new capabilities and the new obligations that arose from those capabilities. 

As the negative side of industrial development became increasingly clear, some people pushed for reform of the most blatant abuses (think Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle), and some opted out of the system entirely, seeing in the pre-industrial past a more natural, human way of living. In time, we became more adapted to this industrialized world and culture, and made some changes to ourselves and our society to make this way of life more sustainable.

And then, roughly two centuries into this process, we learned that — even in its somewhat reformed state — our industrialized culture has had an impact not just on our lives, but on the earth itself. We find ourselves struggling with global warming and increasing scarcity of the resources required to support industrial societies. We have learned that the implications of industrialization were larger than we could ever have imagined at the start of the process.

II. Electronic Super Highway

The communications revolution began in the 20th century. The telephone, fax machines, email, text messages, and “social” apps launched from ubiquitous personal communication devices; a variety of inventions and subsequent refinements led to an increasingly connected society.

But by the end of the 20th century, it was clear that there were undesirable side effects to these changes. Many felt overwhelmed by the ever-increasing volume of communication, by the decreasing distinction between work time and personal time, and people struggled to adapt to both the new capabilities and the new obligations that came with those capabilities.

As the negative side of developments in communication became increasingly clear, some people pushed for reform of the most blatant abuses (think companies’ “email-free Fridays” experiments and the “digital sabbath” movement), and some opted out of the system entirely, seeing in the the pre-always-connected past a more natural, human way of living. In time we became more adapted to this ultra-connected world and culture, and made some changes to ourselves and our society to make this way of life more sustainable.

And then…? 

III. A Brief History of [a Recent] Time

Perhaps it’s normal to feel the technological and cultural changes that happen during one’s lifetime are striking, significant changes, but I certainly feel that the degree of change in the technology and cultural norms of communication that has taken place in the past forty three years is unprecedented.

I’m just barely old enough to remember a world where my parents made sure they got to the bank on Friday afternoons to withdraw whatever cash they needed for the weekend. No ATMs: once the banks closed you were out of luck. We made long-distance telephone calls as brief as possible, because of the expense. Once or twice a year we received a fat “round robin” letter in the mail. This letter (or bundle of letters, really) circulated around our extended family with updates on the births, deaths, weddings, graduations, new jobs, and new houses.

My parents spent most of their professional lives in a world where inter-office memos circulated in manila envelopes. Information that needed to get to another organization quickly was sent by courier, or next day air. Correspondence via postal mail was the standard, phone calls for high priority issues.

I didn’t have a personal email account until I got to college, and I was on my third office job before I was given a professional email account. As late as my mid 20s, if I wanted to go out but had not made plans with friends, I would go someplace that I knew they were likely to be, because there was no way to contact them.

Judging by the current norms, we were woefully out of touch, even with the people closest to us.

IV. Back to the Future

On an average day, I receive about 40 emails at work that require some degree of thoughtful, immediate response [about 125 different people emailed recently]. Depending on which organizations we’re working with at a given time I’ll be in and out of Trello [12 users], Basecamp [45 users], Jira [10 users], or Liquidplanner [five users] a dozen or more times to comment or kibitz.

My personal email account is usually three or four messages per day that need a relatively immediate response, with a scattered handful that need some degree of attention. Perhaps half a dozen text messages (except on complicated days, when that number easily quadruples), and — despite my best efforts to discourage it — two or three phone calls.

I check Twitter occasionally throughout the day [following 353 accounts], and will engage with it more often when I receive @replies or direct messages, which trigger a notification on my phone.

Tumblr is no longer installed on my phone, but I tend to check my dashboard [following 385 blogs] two or three times a day when I’m in front of a computer.

It’s virtually impossible to get a true number, but I probably interact in near real-time with several dozen people via one channel or another every single day, and passively accept input from a much larger number. And while I may skew towards one end of the communication spectrum, I don’t believe my numbers would seem out of whack to many of us today. That I deleted my Facebook account years ago probably means that my number is lower than many.

V. Slouching Towards Bethlehem

For a while, eliminating email spam seemed the answer of choice: we wanted the signal, there was just too much noise. But we emerged largely victorious from the spam wars, and still people found it necessary to declare “email bankruptcy” on a regular basis. Then social media services were the answer, particularly of the symmetric variety, because they allowed you to control who was making demands on your attention. But “social media fatigue” became commonplace nonetheless.

We have taken a wide variety of approaches to managing, channelling, and shaping the wave of human interaction (and requests for acknowledgement and interaction) that has been developing over the past couple of decades, and for many of us it’s become something we can more-or-less handle. Normalcy. We’ve got the pollution well enough under control that the toxic smog no longer fills the streets.

But all this — all of it — has happened within my conscious memory. Call it forty years.

Until very, very recently you interacted with the people who were in the room with you, on your street, in the corner bar. The scope and pace of the world, whether business or personal, was limited by physical proximity. A significant part of the relationships human beings had with other human were relationships with the idea of those people, the memory of them, our minds filling in that space until the next letter or visit. For better or worse, we have changed that.

Perhaps I’m wrong that these changes in the volume and nature of human communication are more significant than any that have come before. And maybe I’m wrong to think that there will be unexpected consequences to come as human beings are required to interact with more human beings, more frequently, and more quickly than they ever have before. But I really don’t think so.

For all that I love these tools for communication, for sharing, for all that I’ve spent much of my life immersed in them, I’ve become just a little afraid. Not afraid of the tools themselves, but afraid of where we may be taking ourselves.

I can’t argue that the industrial revolution was a bad thing, but it seems fair to suggest that global warming isn’t good, and the one led us to the other. Not intentionally, of course; we just had no precedent, no frame or reference for even imagining the possible implications of what we were doing.

So, too, I wouldn’t argue that this increasingly connected world is a bad thing in itself, but I still worry that we don’t yet fully understand the bargains that we’re making. I still wonder if we aren’t, unintentionally, of course, setting in motion some fundamental changes.