The Fall and Rise of Asynchronicity

The daughter of a friend was bemoaning poor connectivity of the internet at a university in Europe. She said, “It’s vital since I don’t have any other method of communication.”My friend noted, “I was telling her how we only had letters and occasional long distance phone calls in college….”

One of my most widely read blog posts was entitled, “Blackberry Cold Turkey,” in December of 2006. The impetus was when my telecom provider wrote in November to tell me that my bare bones wireless data service was going to be discontinued, but that I could “upgrade” to one with a higher price with more functionality, if I also bought a new device. I decided it was time for a life-changing experience and tossed my Blackberry in the trash. This reminded me of a major functionality of email.

The most important attribute of email is the asynchronicity of the medium: The sender and the receiver do not have to be in contact at the same moment. This enables efficient communication. You can integrate emails into the fabric of your life. You originate a message when you want, and you reply to another’s when you want.

Until the “revenge effect” occurs! How does this work? Email was invented. Then Blackberries were invented so we could be sure, when we are away from our computer, to receive emails as soon as they are sent and reply to them immediately. In fact, we feel compelled to read and respond in real time. Asynchronicity disappears.

Now, it is even worse. With iPhones and the like, you not only get email in real time. You see Twitter feeds in real time. You see Facebook updates in real time. You see the news in real time. What you tend to do is to respond quickly and less thoughtfully. Also, you train all your correspondents to expect you to be available at a moment’s notice. We have all seen teenagers — and adults — walking down the street, side-by-side, focused on their hand-held devices, rather than talking with each other.

What you don’t see in real time is the ambient environment. As I noted back then, after my disposal exercise:

I have since discovered marvelous things. The sun rises in the morning and sets at night. Airport lounges are great places to visit with friends or read a book. Red lights are an excellent excuse to stop driving, look around, and see what’s happening on the streetscape. People in meetings pay more attention to you if you pay more attention to them. The email that arrived three hours ago is still relevant — or better yet, no longer matters!

So, dear college student in Europe, learn to love your freedom. Not only the freedom from your parents, but also your freedom to absorb all that you see, taste, smell, hear, and touch in real time. Those electronic messages that used to seem so desperately important will fade away asynchronously in the face of the synchronous real world.

Paul Levy is the former President and CEO of Beth Israel Deconess Medical Center in Boston. For the past five years he blogged about his experiences in an online journal, Running a Hospital. He now writes as an advocate for patient-centered care, eliminating preventable harm, transparency of clinical outcomes, and front-line driven process improvement at Not Running a Hospital.

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  1. Great thoughts! I can understand, having lived overseas myself, the lure of Facebook and email, etc. as the means to stay in touch with those you miss- however, just as for those in the States, and even more so with the incredible opportunity of living in Europe, one misses out on so much by being tied to electronic devices! Life passes you by…