New! My Talk at Google's 2018 I/O Conference on Building Healthier Relations with Technology

A New Vision of Balance: Tech-Life, Not Work-Life

A new vision of human flourishing is urgently needed, I call it “tech-life balance.”

That’s one of the points that I discussed recently in an interview for the intriguing new blog Human-Autonomy Sciences, curated by two leading psychology researchers on human-machine interaction, Clemson University’s Richard Pak and Microsoft Senior Design Research Manager Arathi Sethumadhavan.

In coming weeks I’ll be sharing parts of my interview with Pak in this space. Please share, comment, and ponder!

RP – How can technology facilitate a healthy work-life balance?

MJ – Over the last 20 years, technology has changed human experience of time and space radically. Distance no longer matters much, nor duration, as devices allow us to fling our bodies and thoughts around the globe near-instantly. While on a business trip, a parent can skype a bedtime story with a child at home. The boss can reach a worker who’s hiking on a remote mountaintop. Technology has broken down cultural and physical boundaries and walls – making home, work, and relationships portable. That’s old news now, and yet we’re still coming to grips with the deep impact of such changes.

For instance, it’s becoming more apparent that the anywhere-anytime culture isn’t simply a matter of carrying our work or home lives around with us and attending to them as we wish. It’s not that simple by far. First, today’s devices are designed to be insistent, intrusive systems of delivery, so any single object of our focus – an email, a text, a news alert – is in competition with others at every minute. We now inhabit spaces of overlapping, often-conflicting commitments and so have trouble choosing the nature and pace of our focus.

The overall result, I believe, is a life of continual negotiation of roles and attentional priorities. Constant checking behavior (polls suggest Americans check their phones on average up to 80 times a day) is a visible symptom of the need to rewrite work-life balance dozens of times a day. The “fear of missing out” that partly drives always-on connectivity also is a symptom of the necessity of continually renegotiating the fabric of life on- and off-line.

Because this trend toward boundary-less living is so tech-driven, I believe that the crucial question today is improving the balance between digital and non-digital worlds. After that, work-life balance will follow.

We need to save time for uninterrupted social presence, the kind that nurtures deeper relationships. We urgently need space in our lives where we are not mechanically poked, prodded and managed, ie when we are in touch with and able to manage our inner lives. (Even a silent phone in “off” mode undercuts both focus and cognitive ability, according to research by Adrian Ward at the University of Texas/Austin.)

One solution would be to think more deliberately about boundaries in all parts of our life, but especially in the digital sphere. Too often lines of division are seen as a confinement, a kind of archaic Industrial Age habit. But boundaries demarcate; think of a job description, a child’s bedtime, or the invention of the weekend, a ritual that boosts well-being even among the jobless. Boundaries are systems of prioritization, safety zones, structures for depth, and crucial tools for providing structure in a digital age. A family that turns off its cell phones at dinner is creating opportunities for the kind of in-depth bonding that rarely is forged online.

Technology can help facilitate creative boundary-making – think of the new Apple and Google product designs that prompt offline time. But our devices cannot do the work of inventing and managing the boundaries that are crucial for human flourishing.

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