Realtime & the off switch

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.