Sailing through the never-ending storm: Opportunity and overwhelm in a digitally disrupted world

The journey of ideas to the extremes is well under way.

It feels like years ago, there was a lot of uncertainty, a lot of nuance, a lot of grey, and that everyone was sort of happy with that.

These days, though, there appears to be less room for uncertainty, and there’s little doubt in my mind that technology is responsible. There’s less room for uncertainty, at a time when we deserve to be more uncertain than we’ve ever been before.

If technology in general is responsible, the Internet is the primary driver of all this madcap disruption.

To be more specific, the Internet appears to be the primary driver in two key ways:

  1. Information distribution. The way information is distributed via wireless technology and superfast fibre-optic cables and cloud infrastructure and massive data-centres, which changes everything we do from the way we check books out of the library, to the way we can rent a space for a tent in a campsite, to the way we order a Big Mac. Information is distributed at not quite the speed of light, but close enough to it to make the difference noticeable only to scientific researchers. And one of the common hallmarks of the information distribution is that at all stages humanity is taken out of the equation. As people, we’re too slow, too cumbersome, too prone to error. (Yes, we’re not robots. Yes, we’re not bits and bytes and binary code. Yes, we’re people, and humanity might be beautiful but it’s undeniably imperfect, and in the information distribution game, imperfect is not quite good enough.)

  2. Social media. It’s hard to believe that Facebook is still just 15 years old, YouTube 14, the iPhone 12. Facebook routinely presents “memories”, resurfacing old photos we shared on the platform two or three or five years ago. Few of us receive such “memories” from 10 years or more ago, demonstrating that while the platform itself might be a decade and a half in existence, its pervasiveness in all our lives is a more recent thing again.

    And the past two years have shown some of the extraordinary extremes that social media in general, and Facebook in particular, has made possible: influence by savvy Russian advertising experts on the US presidential elections as our willingness to share so many things about our lives, and Facebook’s willingness to collect that info in a way that we can be micro-targeted with advertising based not just on our consciously stated preferences, but also on our unconsciously declared behaviours.

    Because the data we send out there is much more powerful than just what we actively say we like (by hitting the thumbs-up sign on a Facebook video about of the Spice Girls, for example, or a post relating to weight loss, or vegan recipes, or skydiving). The data we send out also includes the things we might rather keep under wraps. Our private behaviour—including where we go (GPS data) and what we buy (credit card data)—is now no longer private, conducted under the all-seeing eye of Big Brother. A recent New York Times series on data privacy told stories of the granularity of advertising possibilities (one memorable example: “This ad thinks you’re trying to lose weight but still love bakeries.”)

Sample ad from the New York Times Privacy Project series

Sample ad from the New York Times Privacy Project series

Overwhelm is everywhere.

We become burned out as always-on technology begets always-on behaviour and we struggle to disconnect for long enough to allow our frazzled brains to rest and reset.

We become depressed as we struggle to do the things that might regulate our mood to a level that might be described as something approaching happy or content.

Our minds become so restless that we fail to focus on the task in hand. The fervour for multi-tasking arose in the pre-Internet age but now, with distraction everywhere and an insatiable yearning to get lots of sh*t done, a leaning towards multi-tasking only succeeds in making us attempt a thousand things and get none of them to a place which might be described as satisfactory, never mind prideful.

With all the frenzy, we fail to make real progress on important things. We struggle to build real connection with others (who are, after all, themselves mostly frenetic and distracted).

Eventually, like a pressure-cooker, there’s a weak point which provides the release, except in a pressure-cooker, the weak point is there by design. For many of us, the release is only temporary and sends us into a downward spiral. That release could be alcohol or drugs or pornography or illicit sex or violent eruptions or reckless gambling or driving at twice the speed limit. Worst case scenario, for those amongst us—and there are many—who see no way to restore ourselves and our lives to some state that we might be satisfied with, suicide becomes an option.

The scientific evidence is slight and mixed, but growing.

Just this week, a study published by JAMA Network Open, a peer-reviewed, open access, general medical, healthcare and health research scientific journal with a mission to improve health and health care for people around the globe reviewed more than 85,000 suicides of young people from aged 10 to aged 19 between the years 1975 and 2016.

The study found a downward trend in suicide rates for both sexes in the early 1990s but since 2007, however, rates of suicide have increased for both sexes—but suicide rates among adolescent girls increased more, and girls between the ages of 10 and 14 showed the largest percentage increase. The study pointed the finger squarely at social media:

“Social media use is more strongly associated with depression in girls compared with boys, and cyberbullying is more closely associated with emotional problems in girls compared with boys. Other work shows that girls with depression elicit more negative responses from peers on social media compared with depressed boys,” wrote study authors Joan Luby and Sarah Kertz, both of the Washington University School of Medicine, St Louis, Missouri.

So is it all bad?

As anyone who might have read these blogs in the past might know, I’ve no interest in polarisation and am skeptical of anything that’s all black or all white. I prefer to live in the truthful, messy, confusing grey in the middle.

The flip-side of the overwhelm so many of us are feeling is the opportunity that we have available.

Of course, the grey-not-black-or-white nature of all this is that the opportunities we have available could be a substantial driver of the overwhelm. When we can do a hundred different things, and when another hundred things will press on our consciousness tonight or tomorrow or next week, making a conscious choice and sticking to it for as long as is necessary to achieve or create something valuable is an increasingly rare thing.

But back to opportunity.

It is possible for all of us to live life on closer to our own terms than ever before. It requires a fundamental change in the way we think and live, and fundamental changes like that are difficult for most of us, and downright impossible for many.

For those who find it impossible, the responsibility is on the rest of us to help. To do what we can. To give a hand-up whenever we can, in the knowledge that when we need the hand-up, someone somewhere might be able to do the same for us.

But there’s no escaping the fact that all of us are invited, or even compelled, to think and act differently.

Yuval Noah Harari We value job security now in the short-term when our long-term security might be better served by something new and different (and strange and daunting). Yuval Noah Harari, the Israeli historian and writer, talks compellingly about this new normal:

Traditionally, life has been divided into two main parts: a period of learning, followed by a period of working. In the first part of your life, you built a stable identity and acquired personal and professional skills. In the second part of life,you relied on your identity and skills to navigate the world, earn a living and contribute to society.

But by 2040, this traditional model will become obsolete, and the only way for humans to stay in the game will be to keep learning throughout their lives, and to reinvent themselves again and again.

Change is usually stressful, and after a certain age, most people don’t like to change. By the time you’re 50 you don’t want change, you want stability. But in the 21st century you won’t be able to enjoy that luxury. If you try to hold onto some stable identity, some stable job, some stable worldview, you will be left behind and the world will fly by you with a whoosh. So people will need to be extremely resilient and mentally balanced to sail through this never-ending storm.

Recently I worked with a genial Australian man somewhere in his late 60s or early 70s, who worked in sales for more than 30 years. I met him in a Facebook discussion group on sales tips and techniques. He lives now with his Thai wife in a little village near the Cambodian border, and he helps business owners all over the world to improve their sales conversations and results.

Tens of millions of us are only now discovering this same possibility, which will have profound implications for the way we live and work into the future. And it goes for all of us, from space technologists to cancer researchers to social scientists to schoolteachers and bus drivers, everything is changing for all of us at a breakneck pace.

And it’s never going back, so we have just two options: either to retreat from the new world and allow bitterness to fester; or to embrace it, warts and all.

We realise, too, when we really think about this, that the most powerful thing about this unprecedented disruption is this:

That for all the bad apples in the world, the vast majority of people everywhere are good, and those billions of fundamentally good people can now connect with each other in ways we never could before, in ways we don’t yet fully understand, and in ways that are becoming more powerful all the time.

And we can be intentional about this. To use the Internet in the best possible way, as a connector of good people, while taking responsibility to highlight and alert and stamp out the bad wherever we see it.

The Internet has made so many things unimaginably worse at the same time as it’s made so many things unimaginably better.

And it’s really just starting.

When we are mindful of the possible downsides, and yet still bring pure intention and honesty and integrity to this, magic on a scale that we can hardly yet grasp is truly possible.