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Realtime & the off switch

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Jeremy Toeman is looking to quit “real-time” and take back control of his life.

If you are reading this and thinking ‘that guy’s just an old-fuddy-duddy’ (which, to be fair, no young person today would ever actually say), and you are also patting yourself on the back because YOU are a great multitasker, go take a break from this piece, google ‘multitasking myths’ (or just read this) and then come on back.  Bummer, eh?

And it’s not just about getting stuff done, as that, too, is just massively overrated.  It’s about a lack of peace and calmness. When do we take time anymore just to do nothing?  Even standing in line for a coffee (which is, of course, a take-out coffee, since there’s no time to just sit in a cafe and enjoy a hot cup of coffee in a real cup) everyone’s on their phones, doing stuff.  The human brain actually needs time, every day, just to do nothing and process all of the events that are transpiring (great article here on ‘doing nothing’).

I couldn’t agree with him more — real time has its benefits and it is great. But there is a time when everything doesn’t need to be instantaneous. I have been trying to do the same: the email, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram apps have moved off the front screen to the second screen of my iPhone. But that’s still a Band-Aid. As Nova Spivack once said in a conversation:

“With the real-time web, the amount of information we have to handle is changing the Now,’ he said. ‘Now is becoming a lot denser. There’s a lot more information in a per unit of Now. The Now is getting shorter. The horizon is getting narrower. Now has gone from days to hours to seconds.’”

Some might say — turn off the notifications and exercise some self control. I have tried that, but the behavior of constantly reaching for my iPhone has become too ingrained in my mind. You take out your phone to take a photo or send a text message and the next thing you are doing is checking emails, liking photos on Instagram, using Foursquare and reading the latest tweets.

There are some apps that give you some control over real-time: Tweetbot, for instance, has a sleep option, which I religiously use. I have removed the Facebook app and use their website when I need to, so it has made the process a little bit slower than before. My colleague Mathew Ingram brought up the real human challenges of the realtime in a brilliant post over two years ago.

As a result, our lives are becoming more “real-time,” whether we like it or not. Just as Google and Microsoft’s Bing 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?

If apps like SnapChat and Highlight are any indication, then the realtime nature of the internet isn’t going away and, in fact, it is going to become more pervasive. What would be really cool is an individual “off switch” for these real time apps. In one simple toggle of a virtual button, email is off — like my stereo when I power it down. A flick of the switch turns off Twitter. You get the idea. Why? Because I do like to use these real-time apps during parts of the day, especially when I am working. However, I don’t want to deal with them at night or, say, when I am hanging out with friends or at dinner.

I don’t know about others, but I would welcome that off switch. Turn off tweets till the dinner is done and switch them on when I’m ready to jump into the real-time information stream again. I think taking that break is becoming more and more essential.

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17 Responses to “Realtime & the off switch”

  1. In “Now” world, we want stay current on Super Relevant content, offers, .. but we end up consuming a lot of irrelevant SPAM and wasting time. The Apps need to connected to Super Relevancy Engine that understands user intent, behavior, context, … That is the OFF switch.
    Yusuf Ansari
    Founder, Intuition Intelligence, Inc.

  2. scrandall

    When I first joined Bell Labs in the early 80s, my laboratory instituted 4 hour periods for focus and concentration … you would pick one in the morning or the afternoon and you had control of who would access you. The local pbx had been set up to allow up to 3 phone numbers of your picking to come through – everyone else could leave a voice mail. Computer network access went dark (admittedly it was primitive at the time).

    About five years ago I helped a fantastically creative company try something similar, but addressing newer technology. Emergency calls can get through – everything else goes black except for certain types of net communications within the company. They believe it has made a significant change in their creativity and productivity.

    Increasingly real sign of those with power is the ability to own one’s own time and that means a big “Off” switch.

  3. Clinton Wu

    This is interesting. Would you proactively turn Twitter off whenever your mind gives your finger the urge to tap the app icon or would you schedule Twitter to be turned off in advance of a dinner with friends? It’s a small nuance but it’s important as to whether the off switch acts as a diversion or a barrier.

    Also, I think what you describe goes beyond just real-time apps. While they may be the worst offenders, some people probably feel the same urge to check GigaOM rather than Twitter. You may argue social network is different than news but regardless, there’s something here in terms of rerouting the spectrum of information updates (from ephemeral to permanent) into short bursts that can be consumed and then be done away with. This is what I’m thinking about at Skim.Me too.

  4. Scott Nelson

    Couldn’t agree more. However, what do you do when people start to get offended that you didn’t respond to their e-mail until 12 hours later? Or you didn’t message them back immediately? It’s a cultural shift that requires combating

  5. The problem is the organization paradigm, MVC.
    MVC in the 21th century:
    M Model as self organizing data
    V View or other appropriate out like TTS adjusted to context/ mobile/ big screen/
    C Collaboration between machine[s] and user[s]

    In other words the OS should provide the collaboration controls to autonomously filter on different level depending on what’s going on. You should not be forced to do it by app.