Is there any way out? Time to take a step back. Photo: Getty
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The dark side of digital work: how technology is making us less productive

The more time and effort we spend keeping on top of ever-changing applications and struggling to swim through gluts of information, the less productive they are at work.

Digital technology has certainly delivered for business, leading to multiplying uses and channels, spiralling across the world of work. But the pace and scope of the transformation has been far greater than we could have imagined, and is beginning to push up against our human abilities to cope.

From a series of studies we’ve built up evidence of a fast-emerging “dark side” of IT:  technology stress, technology overload, technology addiction and IT misuse in the workplace. The very qualities that make IT useful – dependability, convenience, ease of use and quick processing – may also be harming productivity and people’s well-being.

“Technostress” comes from our feeling forced to multitask rapidly over streams of information from different devices, having to constantly learn how to use ever-changing IT, and the sense of being tied to our devices with no real divide between work and home. A survey of 600 computer-using professionals, for example, found that 73 per cent worried that not being constantly connected to their workplaces would place them at a professional disadvantage. Many employees confessed to feeling “addicted” – spending an average of 23 minutes each day responding to work emails when at home, and feeling compelled to stay in touch and working while on their commute, on weekends and even on holidays. Another aspect of the dark side is that employees can knowingly – or unknowingly – misuse their firm’s IT resources and compromise IT security. It’s very difficult to stop an employee who has authorised access to a system obtaining confidential company information and selling it to outsiders, naively using unlicensed software or opening up an email with a virus.

The more time and effort employees spend keeping on top of ever-changing applications and struggling to swim through gluts of information, the less productive they are at work. They’re more likely to be hasty and rushed in how they deal with information, with less time for thoughtful analysis, thinking through issues and problems, which makes it more likely people will just stick to routines and what they know. Technostress also affects relationships with people having less time generally for clients, partners and colleagues, too distracted by the pull of the screens. Excessive use of IT can harm the wellbeing of both individuals and the organisations. We found instances where employees resigned because they found it too stressful to cope with the learning required to use constantly changing computer applications.

Is there any way out? Perhaps to begin with, employers and organisations just need to step back and assess these potential risks from digitisation, and think more in terms of a “mindful” use of IT, what’s happening, how’s it affecting people and how can there be more of a balance? Organisations have traditionally taken a technical approach, helping their employees use IT “better” or “more” with technical “training” material or sessions.  What’s needed is a set of more wide-ranging and integrated policies developed with the participation of senior leaders from both IT and non-IT functions. For sure they should include technical approaches like dashboards for employees to track and limit their IT us, or auto-security measures such as blocking questionable email attachments. But more importantly they should include non-technical actions such on digital mindfulness such as programmes for educating employees about responsible IT use, making them aware about potential dark side effects, encouraging work-life balance and providing resources and support for dealing with things like technostress.

Monideepa Tarafdar, Professor of Information Systems and Co-Director of the HighWire Doctoral Training Centre, Lancaster University Management School, “The Dark Side of Information Technology”, co-authored with John D’Arcy (University of Delaware), Ofir Turel (California State University) and Ashish Gupta (University of Tennessee) was published in Sloan Management Review, Winter 2015.


Alan Schulz
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An Amazonian tribe is challenging scientific assumptions about our musical preferences

The Tsimane’ – a population of people in a rural village in Bolivia – are overturning scientists' understanding of why humans prefer consonant sounds over dissonant ones.

It was 29 May 1913. Hoards of Parisians packed out the newly-opened Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. Messrs Proust, Picasso and Debussy were in attendance. Billed for the evening was the premiere of Le Sacre du PrintempsThe Rite of Spring, a ballet and orchestral work debuted by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky.

The attention and conjecture focused on the theatre that day meant expectations were high. However, within moments of the piece beginning, all preconceived notions held by the audience were shattered, as what was unfolding in front of them was a musical tragedy unlike anything they had ever witnessed.

A bassoon hummed into the ether before ballet dancers stomped on stage; the music, unpredictable with its experimental edge, drove forth the onstage narrative of a young girl whose selection during a pagan ritual saw her sacrificially dance towards death. Stravinsky’s composition and the ensemble of the night caused the room to descend from laughter and disruption to chaos and uproar.

The employment of dissonance – sharp, unstable chords – largely contributed to the audience’s disturbed reaction. Dissonant chords create a tension, one which seeks to be resolved by transitioning to a consonant chord – for example an octave or perfect fifth. These musical intervals sound far calmer than the chords which riveted the audience of The Rite of Spring.

Dissonant and consonant intervals find themselves as binary opposites; the frequencies at which notes played together vibrate determine whether an interval is consonant or dissonant. Consonant intervals have simple mathematical relationships between them, but greater digression from that simplicity makes an interval increasingly dissonant.

It’s long been believed  both experimentally and anecdotally – that the preference among Westerners for consonant chords highlights a universal, perhaps biologically-rooted, leaning among all humans towards consonant sounds. If you were present at the introduction of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring on that night of furore in Paris, you’d find it hard to disagree.

There is, however, a growing movement against this consensus. Ethnomusicologists and composers alike argue that favouring consonance may just be a phenomenon that has evolved from Western musical culture. And following the visit of a group of researchers to a remote Amazonian society, these claims could well be grounded in scientific evidence.

Led by Josh McDermott, an MIT researcher who studies how people hear, the group travelled to a village in the Amazon rainforest called Santa Maria. It’s populated by the Tsimane’ – a group of native Amazonians whose rural abode is inaccessible by road and foot, and can be reached only by canoe. There are no televisions in Santa Maria and its inhabitants have little access to radio, meaning exposure to Western cultural influences is minimal.

The researchers were curious to see how the Tsimane’ would respond to music, in order to determine whether they too had a preference for consonant sounds over dissonant ones. To everyone’s surprise, the Tsimane’ showed no preference for consonance; the two different sounds, to the Tsimane’ at least, were equally pleasant.

Detailing their research in a paper published by Nature, the group explains how the Tsimane’ people’s indifference to dissonance is a product of their distance from Western culture and music, removing any purported notion that humans are hard-wired to praise perfect fifths and fourths.

McDermott tells me that the Western preference for consonance may just be based on familiarity. “The music we hear typically has more consonant chords than dissonant chords, and we may like what we are most exposed to,” he says. “Another possibility is that we are conditioned by all the instances in which we hear consonant and dissonant chords when something good or bad is happening, for example in films and on TV. Music is so ubiquitous in modern entertainment that I think this could be a huge effect. But it could also be mere exposure.”

To fully gauge the Tsimane’ responses to the music, 64 participants, listening via headphones, were asked to rate the pleasantness of chords composed of synthetic tones, and chords composed of recorded notes sung by a vocalist. At a later date, another 50 took part in the experiment. They had their responses compared to Bolivian residents in a town called San Borja, the capital city La Paz, and residents in the United States – locations selected based on their varying exposures to Western music.

What made the Tsimane’ particularly interesting to McDermott and his group was the absence of harmony, polyphony and group performances in their music. It was something the researchers initially thought may prevent an aesthetic response from forming, but the worry was quickly diminished given the Tsimane’ participants’ measure of pleasantness on the four-point scale they were provided.

Unsurprisingly, the US residents showed a strong preference for consonance – an expected preference given the overrunning of Western music with consonant chords. Meanwhile, the San Borja and La Paz residents demonstrated inclinations towards consonant sounds similar to the US residents. The implication of these results – that consonance preferences are absent in cultures “sufficiently isolated” from Western music – are huge. We most probably aren’t as polarised by consonance and dissonance as we assume; cultural prevalence is far more likely to have shaped the consonant-dominant sounds of Western music.

McDermott raised the question about why Western music may feature certain intervals over others to begin with:

“One possibility is that biology and physics conspire to make conventionally consonant and dissonant chords easy to distinguish, and so that distinction becomes a natural one on which to set up an aesthetic contrast even if the preference is not obligatory. We have a little evidence for this in that the Tsimane' could discriminate harmonic from inharmonic frequencies, which we believe form the basis of the Western consonance/dissonance distinction, even though they did not prefer harmonic to inharmonic frequencies.”

There has been some criticism of this. Speaking to The Atlantic, Daniel Bowling from the University of Vienna said:

“The claim that the human perception of tonal beauty is free from biological constraint on the basis of a lack of full-blown Western consonance preferences in one Amazonian tribe is misleading.”

Though the results from the Amazonian tribe demonstrate a complete refutation of previous assumptions, people's musical preferences from other cultures and places will need to be analysed to cement the idea.

With research beginning to expand beyond WEIRD people – those from a Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic background – the tastes in music of people the world over may continue to surprise, just as the Tsimane’ did.

The Rite of Spring, which was met with ridiculing reviews has now been canonised and is considered to be one of the most important pieces of music of the twentieth century. A Tsimane’ crowd on that tender night a century ago in Paris may have responded with instant praise and elation. With further research, the imagined Bolivian adoration of a Russian composer’s piece in the French city of love may prove music to be the universal language after all.