Is new communication technology actually holding us back?

Insights, Tech | Marie Escaich on August 02, 2017

New communication technology has transformed how we interact with our colleagues, friends and family. However, while we know of its prevalence, there is still a debate whether it has a net negative or positive effect on us. 

Productivity levels in the UK, while slowly improving, remain significantly lower than they were prior to 2008. While the effects of the financial crisis have undeniably been a key factor in this, a theory known as Meltcalfe’s Law suggests that technology may also be to blame.

Robert Metcalfe, co-inventor of the Ethernet, postulated that a network’s value increased in line with the square of the number of its users. One effect of Metcalfe’s Law, however, is that as the cost of communicating on that network decreases, so the number of interactions will exponentially increase, along with the time required to process them.

As a result, although the cost of communicating via phone, email, and IM may be virtually negligible, it could be having a negative effect on productivity, as the time taken in processing each interaction means that we now have fewer uninterrupted hours in a working day.

While this may seem logical at first glance, and Metcalfe’s Law has identified an issue with the increase in cheap means of communicating, it still seems that increased connectivity and communication can only be beneficial overall.

Ultimately, communication technology has opened up new opportunities for a wider percentage of the population. While it is true that we should probably learn to better manage the way in which we communicate, this does not mean greater communication is a bad thing. Yes, we should optimise for higher efficiency in our use of communication technology, but having more people connected only increases the ways to explore new means of being productive and seeking out innovation there.

LinkedIn, for example, has created a global community and forever changed the face of recruitment and business development. Connecting to new business opportunities has never been easier or more open.

The ability to communicate and collaborate via the device of your choice has opened up a world of flexible working, in which employees can work in a style and at a time that best suits their needs. People can work smarter and better as a direct result of this.

These advances in communication technology have also facilitated the rising number of entrepreneurs and startups and the value they provide. The ease of connection with talent and ideas is surely invaluable to this market. It could be argued that without the opportunities afforded by this technology there would be no gig economy as we now know it.

In the grand scheme of things, even the communication technology we use now is still relatively new. After all, email only became popular just over 20 years ago. As with any innovation, it will take time for its use to be optimised, and for the wrinkles to be ironed out – it’s worth noting that the steering wheel was invented eight years after the first car. As it continues to evolve, new developments and products will enable us to better manage our productions, and the related productivity issues will become a thing of the past.

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