Elgan: Hyperconnectivity: Friend or foe?

There's no question that we're all getting hyperconnected, but is that good or bad?

An April 2007, Time magazine feature called "The Hyperconnected" was illustrated with a picture of a person's wrist handcuffed to a mobile device. The image faithfully conveys a common and growing reaction to the explosion in connected devices and communication applications in our culture.

The idea behind the article is that constant connectivity through cell phone calls, SMS, instant messaging, social networks, blogs and other media is a burdensome imposition on our peace and sanity. "Can't we just unplug once in a while?" has become a mantra for a new kind of anti-hyperconnectivity sentiment.

Someone is clearly "imposing" all this connectivity on us, and according to the Time article, it's Silicon Valley's "obsessed" Internet CEOs, who create products that act like drug pushers forcing us into addiction. The average Joe on the street might blame the companies we work for, since they require us to carry BlackBerries so we can respond to work-related queries at all hours.

But a new IDC study correctly blames you and me — users — and says we're "forcing" hyperconnectivity on the enterprise.

The coming "stampede" of hyperconnectivity

A study published this week, conducted by IDC and paid for by Nortel Networks, emphasized the pressure put to bear on enterprises and IT departments by hyperconnected users to provide the level of hyperconnectivity they're used to in their personal lives. (IDC surveyed 2,400 business users in 17 countries in North America, Europe, the Middle East, Asia-Pacific and Latin America.)

IDC defines a "hyperconnected" user as someone who uses at least seven communication devices (such as landline phones, cell phones and PCs) and nine communication applications (such as IM, Web conferencing and social networks).

An "increasingly connected" worker, according to IDC, is one who uses between four and six communication devices, and between six and eight applications.

Some 16% of workers surveyed fall into IDC's definition of "hyperconnected" and 36% "increasingly connected." China and the U.S. have the highest percentages of hyperconnected users, according to the survey. Interestingly, the group with the lowest percentage of hyperconnected users includes Canada. So much for the "America Junior" theory of Canadian culture.

Within five years, IDC predicts that 40% of workers will be hyperconnected. This movement, from 16% to 40%, is what IDC calls a "stampede."

How to stop worrying and learn to love hyperconnectivity

IDC's vision — probably accurate or even conservative — is a nightmare scenario for those who feel like they're being dragged, kicking and screaming, into a world of ubiquitous electronic communications. It's even, as the IDC report spells out, a potential nightmare for enterprises.

Critics of hyperconnectivity — the "can't we just unplug once in a while?" crowd — are vocal and dominate the debate. You don't hear a lot of people countering their complaints with, "No, I don't want to unplug, not even once in a while!"

However, I think people speak more convincingly with their actions than their words. And what do people do? They voluntarily carry — obsessively carry — cell phones, sign up for newer and better ways to communicate online, and generally avoid unplugging under any circumstances. The vocal naysayers create the impression that everyone is against hyperconnectivity. But in reality, the majority want more, not less, connectivity.

The IDC report even addressed the happiness factor among the hyperconnected. The study found that people are using nearly all their devices and applications for both work and personal use. Most are "reasonably happy" with their work/life balance and are willing to stay in touch just about anywhere, including while on vacation, in restaurants and even in bed and in their "place of worship."

The study found that phones are more important to those surveyed than even wallets or keys.

I have a very simple explanation for why people obsessively carry, seek out and happily use devices and applications that make us hyperconnected. No, we don't have unhealthy addictions and, for the most part, aren't being forced by the evil corporations we work for. The answer is: human nature.

Evolution has hardwired us to think and behave and live in specific ways. For the better part of 2 million years, we humans have lived in either small, nomadic tribes or in small villages of no more than a few dozen people. With our giant brains and sophisticated vocal chords, we are the communication animal. We are programmed to live in constant or daily communication with every living person we know.

Civilization changed all that. Now we live in towns and cities and roam the world. Unlike our ancestors, we are for the first time in our evolutionary history physically disconnected from our families, friends and acquaintances.

I would argue that not being able to instantly connect with everyone you know is an artificial condition for humans, and that hyperconnectivity is our natural state. Hyperconnectivity is human nature. I'll go even further: I believe that hypercommunication is the very thing that makes us human.

Our craving to return to hyperconnectivity is what's really driving the inexorable trend spelled out by IDC's report.

So what, exactly, are the anti-hyperconnectivity complainers so vexed about? I believe it's not the connectivity, but the artificiality of that connectivity. The annoying ring tones, the cell conversations you can hear only one side of, the Pavlovian response to a ringing CrackBerry. They don't like the idea of personal time being interrupted by work calls and e-mails. These are all valid concerns, but they're all solvable by better etiquette and by people asserting control over their own devices. If you want to "just unplug once in a while," then just unplug.

So is hyperconnectivity good or bad? I think it's good. But it really doesn't matter. It's going to happen regardless of what anyone thinks.

Now, if you'll excuse me, my CrackBerry is ringing.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. He blogs about the technology needs, desires and successes of mobile warriors in his Computerworld blog, The World Is My Office. Contact Mike at mike.elgan@elgan.com or his blog, The Raw Feed.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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