The Cuban Smartphone Crisis

Imagine you daily life without technology and connectedness. No smartphone, no e-mail, no instant messaging, no social media. No mobile phones and no internet. Welcome to Cuba.

Earlier this year I was on holiday in Cuba, and I experienced first hand how we as tourists have come to rely on technology. No access to Google maps or TripAdvisor makes for quite a rustic vacation experience.

Then I noticed something remarkable – it stood out because it was such a strange behaviour given the disconnected nature of life in Cuba. A guy was walking around with a smartphone (presumably not connected to WiFi) playing music in speaker mode, the modern day equivalent of a boombox.

While I didn’t agree with his taste in music, it illustrates perfectly the concept of signal and noise in our technology-filled lives. One person doing this is fine – that is a signal. If everyone started doing that, it would become a nightmare – or more bluntly it becomes noise.

Very quickly it deteriorates into an arms race. The beginning of e-mail looked like this one guy with his phone – a convenient way to deliver only the most urgent of letters. Just as smartphones started gaining popularity, it was still considered impolite to e-mail someone late at night ‘just in case’ they forgot to turn it on silent.

Now that everyone has decided e-mail is the new standard for urgency, we have migrated to various forms of instant messaging just to be able to cut through the e-mail noise. Soon the instant messaging will itself deteriorate into noise, and we’ll have to come up with something even more powerful.

To be fair some of the blame lies with the tools, which haven’t kept pace with their own success. Noise for someone with 20 LinkedIn connections looks very different to noise for someone with 2,000 connections. There is no one-size fits all approach, and creating an algorithm which works well across a diverse audience is a genuinely difficult problem.

Nor does LinkedIn’s algorithm know (or care) whether you have 5 or 50,000 Twitter followers. If you start adding information streams from all the different platforms that you maintain a presence on, things begin to look quite dire. The human race has put a man on the moon, but can’t figure out which Facebook posts I’d actually like to read.

The trick is using technologies in ways that don’t create too much noise:

  • Reserve your attention for ‘urgent’ tools that have strong signals
  • Limit how much information you receive through ‘urgent’ tools (usually by limiting the audience of those tools to close friends or colleagues)
  • Educate your audience on the most appropriate way to contact you
  • Unsubscribe from e-mail distribution lists, digests, and other push communications that you don’t actually read
  • If information overload is an issue, choose technologies and settings that require you to actively seek out desirable content
  • Resist looking at the number of connections you have or the number of tools you have a presence on. You should be focusing on the quality of your interactions.