Bossy Machines
September 16, 2015 by Kay Grossman

Machines these days can be bossy. And they might just know what’s good for us.

Take my new car, for example. The dashboard shows the usual metrics, along with a few added features. On a recent drive on a mostly deserted highway, my husband demonstrated to our passengers the car’s own ability to stay in its lane. He startled us all by removing his hands from the steering wheel as he accelerated down the road. The car veered a bit this way and that, crossing over the lane lines on each side, maintaining an almost sober path. After enough shrieks and questions about his sanity from both the front seat and back, my husband resumed control of the wheel.

The bossy thing is what happened next. A message appeared on the dashboard. It said, “I suggest you take a break. Stop for a rest or for some coffee.”

Of course, our cars are not the only machines to monitor our behavior. Our smartphones track all sorts of data, as do our laptops, desktops, and Fitbits, to name a few. Our office machinery is next, according to a recent article in The Atlantic magazine (September 2015).

From the perspective of this attention coach, some pushiness from our inanimate tools can be useful.

In the article, “Thinking Outside the Cube,” writer Olga Khazan describes equipment that spies on workers. One software program provides a dashboard that “shows employees how much of other people’s time they consume by sending e-mails or holding meetings.” It keeps track of how many e-mails are sent during meetings, which is a gauge of how (or how not) engaging the meetings were. On average, the dashboards freed up about two hours a week for each employee.

Even chairs can spy on us. The Darma seat cushion tracks breathing, heart rate, and posture and tells the sitter via a smartphone app when to stand up or to take a break.

As I often say, our most precious resource is our attention. With increased awareness of how much time and attention you give to various tasks, you have increased ability to choose differently for greater effectiveness—for yourself and those you influence. With a nudge to suggest you’ve been sitting too long for your physical health and focus, you have more opportunities to take productive breaks.

By the way, I’m concerned that my husband’s Fitbit is getting a bit too personal. On occasion it greets him with, “Smooches.” Bossy machines are one thing…

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