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

    Like

  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.

    Like

  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.

    Like

  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

    Like

  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

    Like

  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. :)

    Like

  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.

    Like

  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…

    Like

  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.

    Like

  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

    Like

  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.

    Like

  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.

    Like

  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…

    Like

  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”.

    Like

  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!

    Like

  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 =).

    Like

  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

    Like

  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.

    Like

  19. LOLLLLLL Glad to hear yer OutSourcing Drudge Work to 3rd World Countries like Canada India* ;)) Keep it coming we need the Jobs!

    I remember coming across the ACT s/w program over 20 Years ago it was a godsend to Manage all your Calls Meetings ToDo’s* As some have pointed out here it is the People that have to use the Technology properly but no doubt it can be a Huge Help*

    ;)) Peace*

    Like

  20. I think the question is misleading – I think while technology probably adds some complexity, properly used it can drastically increase the QUALITY of one’s life. In my case, it not only increases the quality of my life, but medical technology has given me life. I am 43 years old and was kept alive by a pacemaker/icd for ten years and received a heart transplant in October of last year. Had I been born 25 years earlier, I would have been dead at 33, not worrying too much about simplicity vs. complexity. Technology, particularly in the form of high-speed internet access and opensource software is also enabling me to try and build a business (and design a lifestyle) in spite of medical challenges. I have the resources from home (even lying in bed if necessary) to publish a book (The Trouble with Trizms), maintain a website, launch marketing campaigns, etc., etc. – while none of this qualifies as simple, it allows complex tasks that used to require large staffs and lots of capital resources to be done by one-person operations.

    Andy

    Like

  21. I disagree for a really simple reason. When I was in highschool I had a huge cd collection of music. One I was very proud of. I also had a Sony Discman that I would carry around everywhere along with a cd case that held about 5-6 of my favourite cds. As technology evolved the Ipod came out. Now my entire cd collection fits in my right pocket of my jeans. Now I have all my music with me all the time. That to me is simply amazing. Go technology:)

    Like

  22. I agree with several of the other commentators that technology per se does simplify our lives. Is peoples decision on how to apply it and how much to use that complicates things. One should declutter as much, while remaining as effective as possible. There are plenty of technology options to achieve this.

    As for outsourcing of work, I would also like to recommend my native Costa Rica. For about $450 per month you can have a full time virtual assistant. There is a good bilingual base, excellent level of education and Central time zone. Also to consider this destination for your adventure travels.

    Like

  23. The exponential growth of technology and the displacement of families in the US is the revenge of the original Native Americans spirits in my opinion.

    Technology need discipline simple as that. On that note where can I outsource a lot of MBA work? and can they manage the MBA projects as well.

    Adios Amigo.

    Like

  24. Does technology simplify life? No, I don’t think so – but we have to be very careful with the definition of “simplify” and not confuse it with “improve.”

    Take the example of washing dishes.

    Is it simpler to wash dishes by hand, or put them in the dishwasher? It is SIMPLER to wash dishes by hand, because there are fewer steps and fewer time-segments to juggle – rinse/load/wait for a full load/run/wait for dry/put away, as opposed to wash/let dry/put away. But if I have a huge stack after a big dinner or something, It’s EASIER and FASTER (not necessarily SIMPLER) to put them in the dishwasher.

    Add to this that having and using a dishwasher means I have to choose every day whether to wash by hand or use the dishwasher, and which dishes should always be washed by hand (not many, in my house!), and have two kinds of detergent (one for hand-washing and one for dishwasher), and earn the cost of owning and maintaining the appliance itself.

    For this example, and I think most others, technology gives us more options, CAN give us more time if used wisely, but does NOT make life simpler.

    Like

  25. The most over-complicated part seems to be the question itself.

    “Vote Pro / Vote Con”? So hold on, am I voting that I’m pro technology, or pro the statement that technology is failing to simplify my life?

    A simple change of terminology to “Vote Yes / Vote No” would clear up any ambiguity, and points to the fact that it’s usually the people behind the technology that cause unnecessary confusion and complication.

    ###

    I totally agree that the wording is REALLY confusing. It’s like putting a bunch of double-negatives in anything. “Do you not agree that the US shouldn’t stop people from quitting smoking?” Huh? Better wording needed, for sure.

    Tim

    Like

  26. Tim,

    I vote Yes every day of the week. Like you said in the interview with Scoble though, the eccessive use can become paralitic – I guess that is where most people are struggling to draw the line.

    Like

  27. Hi All,

    I totally agree that the wording is REALLY confusing on the proposition.

    It’s like putting a bunch of double-negatives in anything. “Do you not agree that the US shouldn’t stop people from quitting smoking?” Huh? Better wording needed, for sure.

    Tim

    Like

  28. Tim,

    RE: IPHOTO ON GMAIL

    You posted not being able to attach IPhotos when sending a Gmail. Here’s what you do:
    Click attach a file
    Then choose file
    Then Pictures on the left side of your finder
    Then choose iPhoto Library
    Then choose the year
    Then choose the month
    Then choose the date of the photo.

    “Wah lah” as we rednecks say (voila)

    If I can help you, please feel free to contact me.

    Najeeb
    (I purchased one of your 4HWW manuscripts)

    ###

    Hi Najeeb,

    If I click on “Pictures” then “iPhoto Library”, it just shows the info on the library but doesn’t go any deeper or allow me to select anything. I’m using Tiger. No worries — I’ll figure it out. Just a pain in the ass to export, and I do know I can use mail as my client, but it seems like a very counter-intuitive pain-in-the-ass un-Mac way of doing it.

    People go to silly lengths to defend Macs, but let’s be honest. Lots of functions are just easier on a PC. Not that I’m going back, as I couldn’t deal with Vista crashing and constant updates, but let’s be honest… :)

    Tim

    Like

  29. Well — with slightly less advanced medical technology my life would be simplified because I’d be dead of cancer.
    So some complication is well worth the alternatives.

    Poorly designed technology fails, but reading, oh for instance James Thurber shows how much one can complicate things at handwritten and snail mail speeds…

    Like

  30. Tim,

    Would you agree that technology at least gives people the *ability* to simplify their lives?

    I was just thinking that it would be awfully hard to start and run BrainQuicken or any ‘muse’ (and therefore automate income) without technology. That automation plays a big role in simplifying people’s lives.

    Andy

    Like

  31. Andy: Not to sound like a jerk, but your post (and several others) goes to show you haven’t completely read Tim’s post on the economist.

    There’s no interest in whether technology simplifies life at the very least (i.e., greater than zero simplification than without it), whether technology simplifies life completely (i.e., 100% simplification than without it), or technology even gives the ability to simplify (because clearly it does).

    Tim’s discussion (and rightfully so) focuses on what he calls the end sum of what technology does to simplify life.

    Your argument is the equivalent of someone stating something like, ‘German car engineers are more intelligent than American car engineers,’ then you retorting that there is 1 example of an American car engineer who has a higher IQ than a German counterpart.

    Everyone: Please do Tim the least duty of reading his position on Economist before replying! I think we owe him at least that much.

    Like

  32. Andy and everyone else: Tim’s position on Economist clearly states he’s interested in the end sum of technology simplifying life, not whether technology does it all or does it completely.

    Please read Tim’s position before replying!

    Like

  33. The part I find amusing is your observation for the Economist’s voting mechanism! I am sure they want to capture all the contact information for good (marketing) reasons, but c’mon guys… register with your site just to vote on something? Just be happy with the cookie on my computer!

    The complication with that scenario is – I want to contribute to the discussion, but not at the “risk” of giving out my info, because they will add me to their email list and clog my inbox with stuff I don’t care about. I read that page because someone I admire was featured on it, nothing more. Next week or next month they will put out more stuff having nothing of interest to me, and I will try and remember why I am getting the email from them.

    Way too much to think about just to vote yay or nay :)

    Like

  34. Cmon now Tim, how could technology be failing to simply life. It must be used appropriately. Yes, you say information fast, unplug, you get too many emails and we are burdened by the tether of blackberrys etc etc. However, without technology you wouldnt have a network that consists of Canadians and Indians. Technology is a burden until used correctly, then it simplifies. (hello non-american who filters these before Tim, keep up the good work;)

    Like

  35. Leopard X Tim!!! You are still running Tiger? Time to switch over, I have an extra copy so let me know if you want it. Furthermore, you should get iLife08 makes iphoto so much easier to use. Let me know if you want these, I bought extra copies that I got stuck with. Anyhow, looking forward to more posts.

    Jose Castro-Frenzel

    Like

  36. Thanks, Tim, for your frankness about Macs. As a long time PC user, I’ve wondered about if Macs are necessarily easier. Ultimately, I think it’s up to the user to work out the kinks, regardless of what platform.

    I must say, however, that the Mac Air is looking very attractive. At $1800, I think that’s actually not a bad deal considering how light and thin it is, with 4-5h battery life.

    Like

  37. I read the entire post. I hold that my question still stands and is even strengthened by the part that you highlight. For Tim, and many others who use technology appropriately, the end sum is a simplification of their life. Who cares if you get 1,000 emails a day – if you are smart enough to leverage technology, your life is still made more simple.

    When we refer to the “net sum” I believe we are referring to the net sum of simplification on one person’s life, not the net sum on everyone’s life, regardless of their ability or discipline to properly use technology. I got this impression from the question: Do you feel more overwhelmed than you did last year or five years ago?

    I don’t follow how any of the concepts are equivalent to the American/German car engineer question – please elaborate.

    Like

  38. Andy: I don’t think you’re grasping Tim’s concept of
    end sum.

    When you ask, ‘Does it at least give the ability…’ you’re asking the equivalent of, ‘Does technology simplify anything at all’ (a ‘greater than zero percent’ concept). That type of argument doesn’t hold much water in debate because rarely are ideals so extreme as to be 100% or 0% in one direction; thus, a statement of greater than 0% or less than 100% doesn’t provide much value at all since so few ideals are that extreme in the first place.

    Tim isn’t proposing that technology does not simplify life AT ALL, but rather that after all is taken into consideration, it doesn’t simplify as much as we’d like to think.

    Like

  39. Tim,

    Are your Canadian-based assistants being phased *in* or *out*? I had thought you only outsourced this work to India.

    I’m looking to hire a remote personal assistant, so your insight would be appreciated. Wages would obviously be lower in India than Canada, but perhaps English language skills need play a role in decisions on selected locale.

    Thank you —

    Mike

    ###

    Hi Mike,

    I outsource to the talent that gives me the best value per dollar spent. In some cases, I’ve found that to be Canada for language-intensive tasks, but my people run the gamut.

    Hope that helps!

    Tim

    Like

  40. Michael,

    You are so right! The problem is not the technology itself but the lack of discipline with which most people approach technology.

    I for myself wouldn’t want to live without running water, central heaters or ebook readers (except when I go bushwalking that is, and even then I have a solarpanel for my ebooks… :-)

    Cheers,
    S

    Like

  41. Tim,

    I wonder, could you do a post on how 4hww affects your love life?
    ie is being efficient in other areas- ie cooking, reflective on how you would be in
    the boudoir? Or in romance?

    Carriex

    Like

  42. Hi

    Technology exists & its awesomely impressive.

    We can either let it “use us” or we can *use it* to give us the lifestyle we want. We can’t just sit back and let it come to us & expect it to do all the work for us…

    Like

  43. In the end, It’s not that technology has simplified or brought complexity to our lives. Our lives are still a result of the day to day choices that we make. For example, we could decide to create online automated businesses and free ourselves from payment paperwork etc. due to the advent of online credit card processing. On the other hand, if we owned a restaurant, we could use that same technology to process more orders and serve more customers in the same time, making us busier cooking, ordering supplies, etc..

    So really we have simply given more choices, which is why life-style design is so important! So keep leading us to the best of it! Thanks Tim

    Like

  44. Whoever said technology would simplify my life?

    I use tech to complicate my life and make it better. Not simpler.

    If I just used a few tech tools, it could simplify my life. An answering machine simplified it. And a fax machine. But those are very 1/2 duplex technologies.

    Much of what unsimplifies life are the more interactive tech. And e-mail, but I consider e-mail more than 1/2 duplex, maybe 3/4 duplex because you can get an interactive rhythm sometimes….

    Like

  45. Love the the 4hww!!! In my quest to become a member of the NR I’ve had successes and setbacks… One thing I would love to know is how does someone in sales truly implement these principles and become mobile?
    Am I looking at a career change or does anyone have good advice?
    Thanks.

    Like

  46. Who said technology is simplifying lives? Why is that even a desirable feature? If we wanted to simplify our lives, we could go back to the Hunter-Gatherer culture (well, not really anymore..) .. What’s great about technology is how it empowers us! Group communication and organization and freedom of information afford us all greater potential and realization of that potential. And the means by which we can organize our society by our own terms, not the terms of the broadcast establishments.

    Like

  47. Today technology has simplified life for human, in India every one carrying mobile today including sweeper & drivers and allow people to stay connected in difficult situation like recent Mumbai Attack by Pakistani Terrorist.

    Staff of Taj hotel sent out SMS to all who were outside and lot of people rescued thanks to technology.

    On business we developed website for a client and have 50,000 members where she doesn’t need staff to manage it. System is designed that with her 3-4 hours of efforts she can maintain it online.

    Today technology has simplified life for human, in India every one carrying mobile today including sweeper & drivers and allow people to stay connected in difficult situation like recent Mumbai Attack by Pakistani Terrorist.

    Staff of Taj hotel sent out SMS to all who were outside and lot of people rescued thanks to technology.

    On business we developed website for a client and have 50,000 members where she doesn’t need staff to manage it. System is designed that with her 3-4 hours of efforts she can maintain it online.

    Like

  48. Tim,

    Spectacular book, and great resources on how to maintain a simple, low information diet. To add to your list:

    – consumersearch.com: they summarize product reviews; their “fast answers” save TONS of shopping time

    – yelp.com: although most used for restaurant reviews, this helps me find everything from auto mechanics to CPAs

    – Unlocked Sony Ericsson C901: small, capable camera + phone without the typical smartphone distractions; 5mp + xenon flash

    – lastpass.com: great password management software

    – padmapper.com: great housing search tool

    – mint.com: monitor/analyze all your financial accounts from a single location

    Cheers!

    Like

  49. Would love to see the rest of your commentary, but the link is dead, a search on ferris at economist brings up only “Kicking Ass in an Unflat World,” and a quick google brought nada. Perhaps someone in Bangalore can find a new link?

    Like

  50. Technology does simplify modern life. We can argue about the fruits there thereof. Put differently, cars of today are getting faster and faster. That is a fact, but the question would be, is it good? Well one may say yes because we reach our destinations faster. But then one may argue and say, but it is too dangerous now with faster cars than 50 yesrs ago.

    So technology simplifies modern life. Today one can talk with someone oversees as if they were together, to crown it, with more than one person at the same time. That simplifies life. Another example, we speak of nuclear weapons today, that are likely to destroy the whole country in one second. This means that there will be no soldiers carrying guns and cannons any more. One sits in the office on a suit and tie and destroys the whole nation at press of a button. That is simple, the results may not be good for a target, but for the attacker, it is a different story.

    Like

  51. Tim,

    You might want to go through some of your old blog posts and fix some of the broken outbound links you have featured.

    Like the one in this post that goes to the Economist website. It’s broken.

    Byron

    Like