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Psychology of Technology: Real-time Web, Unreal-time Life

Pete Cashmore, the founder and CEO of Mashable, the well-read social-media blog, suggested in a recent CNN column that real-time Web is one of the top 10 Web trends of 2010. Real-time Web means being able to send and receive information almost instantaneously.

Mr. Cashmore (great business name, by the way) argues that real-time Web is the next new thing for both technological and human reasons. From a tech standpoint, the simple reality is that it is now possible for people to communicate quickly and easily. Not only is there the 140-character updates of Twitter, but also real-time location (Foursquare), search (Google), news (Thoora), auctions (StuffBuff), reviews (Yelp), and blog comments (Disqus).

As for the human drive for real-time Web, the emergence of real-time media has altered our expectations about the availability of information and our ability to communicate with others. Instantaneous connectivity is now the default and anything less feels like we’ve taken the “Wayback Machine” (if you know what that is, you’re pretty old!) to those ancient days of the early 1990s. Also, there is neurological evidence indicating that this new media activates the same reward centers in the brain as do drugs. That little chirp, ring, or vibration of incoming tweet, email, or text message sets our brains a-buzzing. Simply put, both psychologically and neurologically, we want it, we want it now, we want it without any effort, and we want it to never stop.

Though this is one train that can’t be kept in the station, real-time Web is troubling to me. First, they call it disruptive technology a reason, but not for the reason for which that term is usually intended. Real-time Web is disruptive because it disrupts the flow of work. As I’ve written about previously, research indicates that multitasking simply doesn’t work, and the constant inflow of information and perceived need to respond immediately that is an inevitable part of real-time Web makes it virtually impossible to single task and maximize productivity. Real-time media also disrupts the flow of life, whether you’re reading a book, watching a movie, eating, or having a conversation, it is distracting, often irrelevant, and just plain irritating (at least to me).

Also, unless real-time Web is what we’re doing at the moment, it prevents us from fully experiencing what we are actually doing at that moment. I would guess that there aren’t a lot of Zen Buddhist technologists out there because just about everything related to real-time media is the antithesis of Zen. We can’t be “in the moment;” we are constantly forced to deal with the past (just-inputted info) and confront the future (your instantaneous output). We can’t attain a Zen-like calm and inner peace because, as noted above, our brain’s reward center is going bonkers and it’s stressful trying to keep up with the torrent of information that never seems to stop. We can’t connect with our spiritual life if we’re connected with our cyber-world. And we can’t just “be” with real-time media because, as the research indicates, the dopamine that it activated causes us to “do,” that is, engage in seeking behavior that becomes a vicious feedback loop (seeking brings satisfaction which motivates more seeking, etc. ad infinitum).

Real-time communication also discourages us from engaging in deliberate thought; there’s just no time! This immediacy of information precludes us from thoughtfully evaluating the information we receive: is it interesting, is it worthwhile, is it relevant to me, is it true? As the early computer-science saying goes, garbage in, garbage out, related to real-time Web, without proper consideration of the information, it’s trash at both input and output (what turns input/output into knowledge, wisdom, and value is thought).

An important question to ask is: Do we need information in real time? There are industries that do require up-to-the-second data, for example, banking and the military. But for most of us, periodic information seems sufficient. Note how the meaning of periodic has changed in the past two decades. It used to mean getting the news twice a day: reading the morning newspaper and watching the network news at night (how quaint). There’s really no such thing as periodic now. Do we really need to know everything – anything! – right away? Can’t we finish what we’re doing first?

As with all new media, real-time Web is neither good nor evil; it’s up to each of us to make it so. Also, as with all new media, the most important thing we must do as individual users is to actually think about how we want to use it to its greatest advantage in our lives. If we don’t, and adopt it just because we can, well, get ready for that dopamine roller-coaster ride.