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

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