Is Technology Failing to Simplify Life? Tim Ferriss on Economist.com

64 Comments


Do you think technology simplifies or complicates life?

I was recently invited to participate in a debate sponsored by The Economist, and it just went live.

The proposition: If the promise of technology is to simplify our lives, it is failing.

Do you agree or disagree?

There are some fascinating points made by both debaters, and I add a few observations of my own. Be sure to read their “opening statements,” which are what I focus on, before their later rebuttals. Here is the first part of my commentary as a “featured participant”:

I receive 500–1,000 e-mail per day.

To contend with this, I have virtual assistants in Canada and sub-assistants in Bangalore who filter my inboxes using processing rules in Google Docs. Connected via Skype and compensated via PayPal, this team translates a 10-hour task into a 20-minute phone call…

[Read the rest of this one-pager here]

It will be obvious why I voted “pro”.

In order to vote — and I find this ironic — you need to first “register” in the top right of the screen, then get a screen name, then click on “pro” or “con”. Simple. :)

Posted on: March 4, 2008.

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64 comments on “Is Technology Failing to Simplify Life? Tim Ferriss on Economist.com

  1. That is real ironic, I guess things get more and more complicated with any sort of interaction. Furthermore, Tim what do you think causes a blog site to be successful, other than huge injections of money from VCs?

    Just curious, b/c I have noticed how quickly your blog site has generated so much traffic.

    Cheers

    Jose Castro-Frenzel

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  2. I think it is ridiculous to say that technology doesn’t simplify.

    Washing machines make cleaning dishes faster. Mobile phones allow me to travel around outside my house when I am waiting for a call, and without technology I wouldn’t have a call anyway, I would be walking. I am able to write and communicate within minutes with a lot of people because of this computer; otherwise we would have to walk to a wall somewhere and write what we thought, there’s nothing simple about that and we would have to worry about food and other things at that point—it would take all day.

    I do think technology can cause problems with some people, but that is the person not making good use of the technology. Spending 6 hours of your day on your iPhone isn’t a problem of the technology.

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  3. In my day-to-day personal life technology does indeed simplify the world – because I control IT. However in business and the everyday work world technology has a trajectory of faster work and more work for the human participants.

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  4. As a computer science student I believe a lot of this is not only the technology but how people interact with it. With a large lack of natural computer skills it can be more complicating for a lot of people. Growing up with lots of technology and living in a technology world for the past two years has given me the ability to use it so naturally that I use it as someone may use their shoes. I think this is true with a lot of younger people, for those who have children younger then 15 or 16 you might see what I’m talking about in how they use technology as an extension not a tool. However despite all of this I don’t think it is fair to fault a person for not having natural computer skills right now, although that may not be true in 40 or 50 years, and so I must fault technology. For now.

    -David Cone

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  5. Tim,
    I guess its fated that I come see you speak at SXSW. My planned flight got sold out, so I had to book an earlier one…later that day I saw your speaking schedule and realized I can now attend your Friday gig.

    Looking forward to hearing you in person, I’ve enjoyed your writing.

    Roman

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  6. I say it does. Unequivocally, so, I think. It extends life span. It lets us communicate easily. These are core ‘quality of life’ factors for which there is a clear improvement. Memory tends to be selective and reminisce to the ‘good old days’.

    Props for getting into the Economist. :)

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  7. Thanks for this article and debate Tim. I work as a pc tech, so i just help people with their computer, and it’s crazy how complicated everything is.

    Peope don’t want complex things, and when i see a new client, i ask them to write down, simple essential tasks they want to do with their computer, like ” write mail”, “play music”, and i focus on making it simple.
    The poeple like apple who make it simple are the big winners.

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  8. I disagree, it is not failing at all (by the way, the question is weird because of how it is worded/asked); I was in Cairns, Australia where it was 1:00a and I was communicating with my colleagues back here in the U.S. at the start of their work day. It was a beautiful thing. It was as if I was at my desk…

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  9. In the current form, technology – more specifically, technology that’s used to connect people and organizations (as opposed to, say, traction control in one’s car) – is clearly causing more problems than it solves, especially when it comes to the electronic leashes that organizations use on their people.

    But I think there’s more to the debate than just whether this technology is making life easier or more difficult.

    These technologies seem to be intended to drive productivity and further fatten profit margins. In and of itself, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’m as much a capitalist as the next guy.

    But from where I sit, I see that this drive to enhance profit margins has become an end unto itself, rather than a means to an end. Sure, organizations and the people that work for them may enjoy more abundant resources, specifically money, but what good is that when one is distanced from family, when one can’t enjoy the fruits of one’s labours, when one doesn’t have time to appreciate the higher standard of living that one is working so hard for and dies of a stress-induced coronary at the ripe old age of 52?

    Money and profits are simply a means to a better quality of life. In my opinion, when the pursuit of money becomes an end unto itself, THAT’S where the problem lies. These issues of technology and the 24/7 lifestyle are just a symptom of that illness.

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  10. Hi Tim. I am honestly half and half on the issue but if I had to pick, I guess I would say that technology simplying lives is NOT failing. You are a popular person and it obviously works for you. For someone like me who is just getting there, it definitely has been helpful but sometimes a hindrance.

    (ie. doing too much research on the internet for hours because i’m too anal when really my team of assistants in india can do it for me!)

    -Jan

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  11. Perspective, perspective, perspective…

    As blogrdoc mentioned, technology as a whole has increased core qualities of life, however there are too many examples of technology complicating life to make this a one-sided debate.

    Right now I work in a bank, usually it would be another boring day processing transactions and what not, but today the entire system for our bank (on a national level) went bonkers. I am talking about just over 6 hours of the day without proper working computer systems, ATMs, online and telephone banking. It nearly brought the whole branch to its knees and nearly drove me to a homicidal rage (lucky for everyone my shoulder was sore). So here’s my piece…If technology is supposed to simplify our lives then why does our everyday life hinge on the continuous and correct running of our technological crutches.

    Internet, banks, power grids (everyone remember the huge east coast black out a couple years back?)…We might be the ones pushing the buttons and turning the dials, but right now we are at technologies electronic mercy.

    Improving the quality of life…technology has done an undeniably great job of that.

    Increasing simplicity in one’s life…technology is seemingly light years away.

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  12. I believe it’s because technology lacking open standards has a negative effect on the consumers. It becomes impossible for separate technologies to integrate because of “proprietary bull shit. Truthfully technology would benefit on focusing on simplification instead of excess features. More features does not necessary mean a better product. Have to leave it to technologists of the future to solve the current flaws.

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  13. 2 words. cell phone. The entire concept of a cell phone is it makes me accessible to other people at any time, I am always at their beck and call (if the phone is on). This doesn’t simplify my life at all, rather, it adds more and more tasks to my already chaotic life.

    I really wish I could just pull a Tim (and go live somewhere for a while), but being a college student, with mandatory attendance in classes, it’s not exactly possible. A Muse would make my life easier using technology, but in my current situation, technology just makes me increasingly available to professors every beck and call…

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  14. I think a more appropriate question is to ask, “Is the responsible use of technology failing to simplify life?”

    Technology, like many things, can be abused (just ask anyone with a Blackberry. Better yet, email them and time how long the reply takes).

    If technology is supposed to simplify our lives, it takes just as much effort from us to keep it from taking that life over. It’s not just “set it and forget it”.

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  15. If the promise of technology is to simplify our lives, it is failing. Agree or disagree.

    If I agree that technology simplifies my life then I have to vote disagree to the statement that it is failing to do this.

    What a terribly worded proposition. I wouldn’t put any trust in the results generated as the proposition is so easy to misinterpret.

    I would have posted this complaint on the Economist website (which I normally hold in high-esteem) but I couldn’t be bothered to go through the lengthy process of registering.

    What does this say? IMO technology simplifies life – it’s human beings who insist on making things overly complicated in their communications and in their processes. Shame on the Economist!

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  16. Ah that’s why I couldn’t vote. They should at least have a message telling you that when you try to click the button. Anyway, I also vote pro by somewhat the same reasons as you =).

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  17. I think the debate around this question although being valid, requires more of a definition.
    If by simplifies it means easier then yes it does make many jobs easier.
    But yet completing these tasks in a shorter amount of time then requires you to fill up your day otherwise. Most time this means completing more of these tasks thus making my life more complicated.
    A person 15 years ago may of had a smaller workload but still have done the same hours as someone today.
    It basically comes down to the fact if you wish to vote numerically or mentally

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  18. Technology is a tool. Whether it simplifies your life or not, depends on how you use it. The Internet, email, cell phones, and other technology has made many things possible for the “ordinary man” that would not have been possible before. If nothing else, anyone can have virtually free access to talk with the world.

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