Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Digital Lifestyle

Today, many famous pop stars like Lady Gaga, Justin Timberlake, and Alicia Keys, are staging “digital deaths” in support of World AIDS Day. They will be signing off Facebook and Twitter to draw attention to the disease. The campaign, called Digital Life Sacrifice, includes ads that show Kim Kardashian and others lying in coffins to symbolize their digital deaths. These celebrities will sign back on when the Keep a Child Alive charity, which raises money for families affected by HIV/AIDS in Africa and India, raises $1 million.

Recently, I experienced my own “digital death.” With our oldest son, Ryan, living and working in the Flagstaff, Arizona area, my wife, Jane, and I plus our younger son Jacob, decided to drive down and spend the entire Thanksgiving week with him. We had a marvelous time together, hiked every day, and spent Thanksgiving Day in the Grand Canyon sitting on a ledge eating lunch half way down the South Kaibab Trail. It was a great week of vacation for all of us.

As I prepared for this trip, I thought a lot about whether or not I should take my office lap top computer. My challenge was that if I did, then I would be checking on work e-mail and projects regularly and might never really get into the vacation spirit and the family time. Not having a phone where I can check e-mail, I realized that I could spend an entire week off-line. With family time being very precious and important to me, I decided to skip the computer and just take a good book.

Once we were on the road, I quickly realized that I was suffering from digital withdraw symptoms. I so regularly check the web and e-mail when in the office and on the road for work that it felt very odd to not be in touch via this medium. I also realized how out of touch I was becoming with current events, people and projects without a computer.

However, once the withdraw symptoms passed, I started to see a lot of interesting things. First, we are now living in a society that is centered around a 24/7 digital lifestyle. Everywhere you go, you can see or hear someone on a cell phone. Some people do not look or talk to people directly in front of them as much as talk and interact with people via their cell.

For example, when we were hiking in the Sedona, AZ area, we encountered someone standing on a ridge conducting a business call. It was interesting to see how unplugged they were to the natural beauty all around them and more plugged into solving a problem at work. I also was particularly interested to meet a young teen while hiking in the desert who was more concerned about her phone not getting damaged than whether or not she was safe going down a steep rock face path or having had enough water to not get dehydrated.

Second, it became very clear to me that young people (30 and under) want access to all kinds of information when they want it. Furthermore, their work and personal relationships are digitally dynamic. This became very clear to me during a Thanksgiving potluck with our oldest son’s friends and colleagues. Everyone checked their cell phone numerous times during the event and responded via text and calls on a regular basis. When seated around a table, the first thing many did was to put their cell on the table next to the plate.

Now, on one hand, none of the above is headline news. It is the new normal, particularly if you live a digital lifestyle every day. But if you take a week off from this lifestyle, and watch it all happening around you, then it becomes very interesting.

In particular, as I watched and experienced this new reality as a non-participant, I began to think about the world of business. Whether we work in a for-profit or non-profit organization, our goal is to build and maintain relationships with our customers and clients. We also want to create brand loyalty when the decision to purchase a product or service takes place. The challenge for us as leaders is to realize that the traditional methods of relationship building and marketing are not going to be effective in the future. For example, radio, newspapers and billboards are nothing more than historical eye candy for the younger generation. On-line social media and networks are influencing more people and in particular younger people at an alarming rate. These current and future customers google their way through life in unique and interesting ways.

As a former history teacher, I know that some changes can not always be understood until a large period of time has passed. For example, I love listening to my father-in-law talk about the transition from horses to early tractors to modern tractors in the world of farming. I also thoroughly enjoy listening to my own father talk about the impact of new technology in the world of communications. For each of these men, there was no way they could have predicted the impact of these changes when they were in their 20’s. Nevertheless, once they hit their eighties, they could look back and see how wildly transformative these paradigm shifts were in the course of their lives.

The key for us today is to realize that change in information technology happens in a unique manner. As futurist Ray Kurzweil explained in the December 6, 2010 issue of Time magazine: “Our intuition about the future is linear. But the reality of information technology is exponential, and makes a profound difference. If I take 30 steps linearly, I get to 30. If I take 30 steps exponentially, I get to a billion.” When we examine the impact of the digital lifestyle and it’s transformative nature, we come to realize that it is moving exponentially and accelerating at the same time.

After a week off from the digital lifestyle, I encourage you to consider putting down the cell phone, the Blackberry, the iPad or lap top for a couple of days and experience life without it. Sometimes a digital death or digital life sacrifice can open our eyes to how much it is impacting our lives and our work places. While famous pop stars raise awareness for AIDS today, I believe we need to realize that our digital lifestyle is changing us as much as we are changing it.

Geery Howe, M.A.Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer inLeadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational ChangeMorning Star Associates319 - 643 - 2257

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