You’re driving along and you accidentally drop your phone in between the seats.
During the remaining 10 minutes it takes to finish your trip, that inaccessible phone is all you can think about.
This situation describes so many people in our new, tech-filled world that we need to rethink the way we define self, according to University of Washington Assistant Professor Michelle Carter. For the last five years, she’s been developing the theory of “IT Identity.”
For many of us, she said, our sense of self has become intertwined with tech; we don’t feel we are ourselves without certain technologies, like smart phones, laptops, tablets, Facebook, etc.
“In relation to a smartphone,” Carter said, a strong IT Identity describes “people who will use the smartphone to manage all aspects of their daily life, to do things way beyond talking, or coordinating, or making appointments.”
And she means everything.
“You know, people want to figure out how to untangle a bike chain. They’ll Google it and they will use the smartphone to figure that out,” Carter said. “If they want to do something new, the things that they’ll think of to do will be things that they can find using their smartphone.”
Carter said it’s important that people understand this new relationship with technology. People with “strong IT identities” feel real emotional distress when away from their technology. Employers need to understand that, she said.
Take an ice cream shop. Let’s say the owner doesn’t want his employees to have phones at work because he fears they’ll be too distracting.
Carter said that policy isn’t a problem, but the owner needs to be up front about these expectations and hire people who can handle it.
“If the employees come in and it hasn’t been clear and they want to use their phones at work and they keep getting told they can’t use them, then they’re not going to be happy,” Carter said.
And worse, she said, “they’re going to leave.” She said they’ll move on and look for a job elsewhere.
Her solution? Embrace it. Don’t call it an addiction. Acknowledge this is our new reality and also that there’s an expectation in our new reality that people will be available constantly. Then, talk to people about ways to set it aside for certain occasions, like driving.
With this plan, people don’t feel bad for being addicted. Instead, there’s a common understanding that we humans are ever-changing and, with this latest turn, technology is a part of us.
Carter is aware that is not a commonly held point of view, but she notes every generation has fought certain technologies.
“Whether it’s IT or rock ‘n roll or the printing press, the fact of the matter is that change happens,” Carter said. “And we’re going through change. It’s not going back.”
Fine. But the scary part? Our future. Is Carter saying we’ll all be cyborgs?
Well, not yet.
“We’re not going to go back to where we don’t have these expectations so we just have to kind of get used to the fact that moving forward, that being human is going to involve technology being everywhere in our environment and in us,” Carter said.
Carter’s article on IT identity is in the next edition of the academic journal, MIS Quarterly.