The Internet seems like an infinite source of information and knowledge, yet we often allow it and other digital technology to be infinitely distracting. Cell phones, e-mail, and IM are tried and true digital distractions. Today, that's advanced to satellite television, social networks, and text messaging. These technologies create a sense of urgency due to their instantaneous or mobile natures. We've allowed the dings, buzzes, and chimes to interrupt everything from meals, meetings, and movies. We've yielded to urgency or perhaps better put, been fooled into believing that next e-mail, phone call, headline update, or text message is indeed urgent.
In 1967, Charles Hummel wrote an essay about the "tyranny of the urgent," where his point was not that we have insufficient time to accomplish tasks but rather that we prioritize the urgent over the important:
"We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done."
Since his essay was written in a less digital world, Hummel references the impact of the telephone on the urgent, "A man's home is no longer his castle; it is no longer a place away from urgent tasks because the telephone breaches the walls with imperious demands." The latter part of the sentence could now read, "it is no longer a place away from urgent tasks because cable, satellite, Internet, cell phones, etc. breach the walls with imperious demands."
The urgent is synonymous with the now. It relates to the "What are you doing?" question of Twitter, ostensibly the most egregious of urgency offenders. In the always-on always-connected urgent world, so much time can be spent "keeping up" with new stories, new e-mails, new text messages, and new updates of various types that "keeping up" becomes a task itself. In fact, it teeters on becoming the task of the day; the news of our lives never stops.
But how much is too much? How many times a day should we check e-mail? How many times a day should we allow the phone to interrupt us? How many times a day do we need to find out what our friends are doing? How many times a day should we get the headlines on what's happening in the world?
Keeping up can create a psyche of paralysis. If you don't keep up, you're "missing out on something" but if you do, there's a good chance you aren't getting more substantive or important things done (e.g., work, reading a book, listening to a friend's problems, paying attention to the kids, etc.). The digital urgency problem can reach a climax; it can evolve into an addiction.
It's no wonder that Blackberry's are referred to as Crackberry's or that there are organizations dedicated to Internet recovery. The latest statistics show that people are on social networking sites like MySpace or Facebook three times as much as print or broadcast media sites. Recent surveys by AOL indicate that e-mail users are checking their inboxes around the clock and even in the bathroom due to the mobility of their devices. Your friend's iPhone might be cool but you may want to pass on using it.
The interruption-filled lives so many people are leading have consequences. Many schools and offices block social networking sites in part because of the distraction issue and its implications on productivity. Lawmakers in Arizona and Connecticut are considering banning text messaging while driving for safety concerns. It is increasingly status quo to ignore friends and family while tending to cell phones.
A society dominated by digital interruption, by the urgent, has the potential to be less polite, less focused, less productive, less safe, and arguably less intellectual. That does not disregard the good of digital technology but rather questions how people are deciding to use it. Rudeness, inattention, procrastination, and superficiality are not new problems. Unfortunately, these tendencies are becoming more acceptable because we've been convinced of the importance of our digitally connected lives.
In many recovery programs, one of the first steps to overcoming an addiction is to admit there is a problem, "Hello, my name is Bob and I check my e-mail while on the toilet." That may sound comical but without acknowledging the worship of the urgent, there can be no change. Man must re-build the walls of his digitally infiltrated castle. He must find his place of quiet, of solace, of meditation, and of focus. The important must supersede the urgent once again; it starts with the off switch.