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Semi-online

Most social and collaboration apps these days have The Little Green Dot. Sometimes it sits there helplessly communicating “presence” and other times it flashes to mimic the pulse of the human being trapped at the other end.

Everyone loathes The Little Green Dot. It makes us feel like robots, not people. Computers and cars have power buttons. Humans do not.

If I walk away from my computer for five minutes to eat a banana, I have not turned off and I am not offline. In fact, I’m more online than ever! My potassium levels are skyrocketing, my energy is improving, and I just felt the sun hit my arm as I walked past the window.

The Little Green Dot is a leash. It is a surrogate for trust and thrives in low-trust environments.

The Little Green Dot is anxiety. It is there to remind us that we’re not working as hard or as long or as consistently as others. Presence favors those who can effectively sit in a chair all day, not those brave enough to step away for a walk and take some time to think.

But the reality is that The Little Green Dot also has real utility. When something important breaks, we need to see who is online to fix it. When we have a pressing question, we need to know who is available to answer it.

And so The Little Green Dot persists, despised, but understood.

As time passes, The Little Green Dot starts to affect us in ways we don’t recognize, often until it’s too late. Thoughtful asynchronous work gets replaced by impromptu synchronous work. Our ability to think on a macro level fades as we get bombarded by small requests, quick ideas, and a firehouse of noise that will never move the needle.

The Little Green Dot always wins because it is shouting the loudest.

Growing up in the 90s, my first impression of the internet was binary. I was either online or offline. Online meant waiting for my mom to get off the phone so I could connect to a 3kb/s dial-up connection. Offline meant total disconnection: no emails, ah-hoc Google searches, notifications, or instant messages of any kind.

The internet was once a space you could intentionally choose to enter, wholly unrecognizable from the ephemeral layer of consciousness it is today. It’s bigger now and more democratized. This is objectively a good thing, but it doesn’t come without costs.

These days everything is part of the “Internet of Things”. Your watch, your lightbulbs, your microwave… they’re all online all the time.

I have to wonder — if we’re all just as connected as the “things” — what separates humans and machines? Are we all that different?

Should humans be always-online or would a semi-online world be more suitable?