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Real-time May Be Nice For Search Engines, But What About Personal Lives?

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The New York Times has written a somewhat sensationalistic piece about the frenzied pace of journalism online — primarily at the political news outlet Politico, but also at blog networks such as Nick Denton’s Gawker Media. In the writer’s view, both are filled with sleep-deprived writers who are shackled to their computers 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and enslaved by computer readouts of the posts and stories that have gotten the most traffic. But while many of the details in the piece are specific to the media industry, the underlying phenomenon that the Times is describing seems far more universal than that: it is the increasingly “real-time” nature of our lives.

This phenomenon may be exaggerated for people who work exclusively online, as most writers and bloggers for websites such as Politico and Gawker (and GigaOM) do, but it is something that is almost inexorably creeping into all of our lives — thanks in part to the expansion of the web, but also due to the globalization of the economy and other factors. While there are still jobs that require nothing more than a nine-to-five regime of sitting behind a desk, clocking in and clocking out, there are more and more every day that involve carrying a BlackBerry or iPhone and being available when something important happens, regardless of when that happens to be.

Maybe it’s because the support staff in Mumbai or Ireland need help with their training, or the programmers in Reykjavik or Belarus are asking for more details on what they are building, or your company needs someone to handle requests from London or Paris or Hong Kong. Or it could be that something negative just popped up on Twitter about your brand, and you have to deal with it before it gets out of control. Responding to those things is something that your company likely doesn’t have much choice about — it has to do so, in real time (or something close to it), or it will lose a competitive edge. And you are sometimes the one who has to do it.

As a result, our lives are becoming more “real-time,” whether we like it or not. Just as Google (s goog) and Microsoft’s Bing (s msft) are upgrading their search indexes to make them more real time by capturing things as they occur, instead of hours or even days later, we are being forced to upgrade our internal processes to do the same thing. But doing that isn’t quite as simple as tinkering with a search algorithm — we have to find ways of managing the real-time demands placed on us while still maintaining something approaching a healthy personal life, something Stacey wrote about a little while ago. How do we handle the demands of our our spouses, our children, our relatives and friends? How do we maintain our health when we are always on, always available, in real time?

Answering that question is something we all have to do on our own terms. Some may decide to leave their jobs and look for employment elsewhere, as the NYT story describes many online journalists doing. Some schedule downtime and personal time the same way they might schedule a meeting, turning off their cellphone and avoiding their email for specific periods — in my family, for example, there are no laptops or cellphones allowed at the dinner table (unless someone is looking up the answer to a question in order to settle an argument). But even those kinds of rules wind up getting bent or even broken sometimes.

In many ways, the New York Times piece strikes me as being very similar to the recent debate over whether the Internet is making us smarter or dumber, a debate that was triggered by author Nicholas Carr’s recent book “The Shallows.” Carr’s book argues that multi-tasking and online distractions are changing our brains and making people fundamentally dumber (and less interesting as well, Carr says). But I would argue that we — or at least most of us — simply have no choice but to multi-task and fall victim to online distractions, and in the same way, we have no choice but to live in real time, both on the job and in our personal relationships too. It is becoming a fact of life.

The NYT piece may be about what online journalism is like now, but beneath the surface it feels like a eulogy for an earlier time, one where such things weren’t required and we all were better off — like a reporter writing in 1910 about the arrival of that dastardly contraption, the automobile, and how complicated modern life had become as a result. The reality is that global, online, 24-7 is increasingly the way the world works, and we had better train ourselves to manage it and get good at doing so, or resign from modern life entirely. That’s not to say it’s easy — but it is necessary. So we might as well get started.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d): GigaOM Bunker Session: The Future of Work

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users orphanjones and totalAldo

17 Responses to “Real-time May Be Nice For Search Engines, But What About Personal Lives?”

  1. “As a result, our lives are becoming more ‘real-time'”

    A bit of a paradox, don’t you think? (Unless we assume that however time functioned before was non-real)

    Point being, its just the natural cultural shift that comes with technology. No two people are going to react the same, and I don’t think its representative or fair to say that “our” (the technologically motivated, the connected) experience shares ramifications with everyone else. Its a far more fractured phenomenon.

  2. The time is always subjected to change and we do have to live with it. Resign from modern life entirely? this is impossible with so many developments happening around us within the environment and the living structure. Multi-tasking is indeed necessary as the world is awake all the time in the virtual world and we need to cope-up with it. But, the ways of proper utilization of time is in our own hands. Prioritize your works and execute as per that schedule. This is the only solution to this real-time problem.

  3. Well. I ‘was’ writing a blog very similar to this, but you have bested me.

    I found this piece thought provoking not only because it stuck so close to my own theories on the matter, but also in how it pertains to my lifestyle. I consider myself an avid cutting-edge enthusiast. My phone, my laptop, my array of disassembled bits of technology I’ve taken apart in the hopes of rebuilding them into some new form of Awesome; above all these is my lust for the latest information and conversations about whatever field is currently at the forefront of my rapidly alternating attention span.

    I use the term ‘alternating’ specifically in response to those that feel ‘shortened’ would be more appropriate. I like living in “Real Time”. Not boring old Reality, where the only perception is that of my own and my immediate surroundings, but the exciting world of Everything. Throughout my day I endeavour to learn and interact as much as humanly possible, and with the aid of all our shiny, blinking new toys/accessories/life lines we can stretch the definition of ‘humanly possible’ as far as we can imagine.

    I feel that this Real Time Reality sharpens us, hones our brain-to-info coordination. For some it may be directed towards what others may deem uninteresting or unimportant, but this is a side effect that accompanies a lot of new technologies, and who am I to tell someone else what they should be interested in?

    The point I’m trying to make is this; I like to think that I have begun the process of letting go of the past. I don’t turn my phone off. I don’t leave my laptop at home. I Tweet, Text, Email, Foursquare, and Facebook at the breakfast, lunch and dinner table. I write blogs whilst riding a tractor (they move really slow). I am shunned often, but always informed. I have a co-dependency, not on physical people but on Everything. I want it all. To be connected, to always know whats going on.

    Honestly, the Borg kinda had some good ideas. M’jus saying.

  4. Mobile web is the best call screen “answer machine” ever created. Mobile web creates less distractions. People are talking less on their mobile device and messaging more. This will only increase over time.

  5. Tech Addiction – “The same neural pathways in the brain that reinforce dependence on substances can reinforce compulsive technology behaviors that are just as addictive and potentially destructive”.Dr. Gary Small. Many of us in tech have learned how to manage the beast as we have been at it longer then others.

  6. “Mobile has become a leash.” THAT’S your bumper sticker right there!

    Having to pay attention 24/7 (even as you sleep), being always prepared to respond to a crisis & multi-tasking as a critical skill for daily life?

    Sounds suspiciously like parenting, the job assigned to women for centuries. And that exhaustion comes not from operating multiple machines simultaneously (workers in manufacturing have always done this) but the managing of so many relationships & interactions that will wear you out.

    But haven’t you heard boys, it’s a CHOICE not a dictate from heaven.

    Don’t let a three year-old, or a three ounce device, tell you what to do.
    We are entirely responsible for the quality of our lives, in and out of the office.

  7. ronald

    There is a fine line between, having to do something continuously and knowing to be able to do something whenever and in a way one wants to.

    One is a disorder or addiction the other is knowledge.

    As for Journalist/Writers I’m with Ben, these companies have to solve it through technology. Albeit there seems to be an expectation (IMHO) that somebody will solve their problem for them(industry, individual companies ) without them spending their own capital(money, knowledge) on R&D. OM seems to be one of a very few interested in a more modern def. and the consequences what information is and how it’s processed, or what news is.

  8. Couldn’t agree more.

    What NYT talks about is an accepted way of life in certain parts of the world already, at least by certain segments of society.

    Ever landed in India or China? Chances are, your flight touches down past midnight. The taxi to your hotel goes through a city still buzzing with activity. The streets are busy with vans ferrying people to a BPO or a factory shift. All-night street-side restaurants are coping with patrons who have spilled onto the roads. Yes, several people in the east don’t have this kind of life style. But people there don’t blink at the mention of a 24*7. Mobile phones have become a leash. Time zone differences across locales are used by MNCs as a tool for “always on”.

    So the world of online journalism is not alone. They might be waking up to this. IT companies, product companies and the service industry in general are neck deep in this, for nearly a decade already.

  9. Great piece. Even though only a minority of the world has “always on” lifestyles and expectations, the world of publishing has already been adjusting with this fast-paced cycle. As more and more of the world gets online more and more of the time, and expectations rise, it feels like a certainty that publishers will need technology – not just frenetic writers – to help them keep up with less caffeine and visene.


  10. This part is just awesome:

    “…The reality is that global, online, 24-7 is increasingly the way the world works, and we had better train ourselves to manage it and get good at doing so, or resign from modern life entirely. That’s not to say it’s easy — but it is necessary. So we might as well get started.”

    I want that as a tattoo, or at least a t-shirt.