Why E-mail doesn't bring happiness: A tech guru confesses

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N.R. Murthy tells a vaguely amusing joke. It's worth listening to, since Murthy is chairman of the Indian info-tech juggernaut Infosys and one of the world's leading technologists.

It goes like this: An American do-gooder goes to Africa and sees an African man loafing on the beach. He implores the man, "Hey, you should get a job! Make some money!"
"Why?" the man asks.
"Because you can buy a nice house, and get a nice car, and go on a nice vacation."
"Why do I want to go on a nice vacation?"
"So you can sit on the beach and relax!"
"But I'm already sitting on the beach and relaxing."

OK, so it wouldn't make the cut on the Daily Show. But there's more to Murthy's parable than just a bemused perspective on America's pursuit of progress for progress's sake. Murthy is one of the visionaries behind the IT revolution that has been driving down business costs, reshaping job markets, and transforming whole industries. Infosys does the kind of work that's largely responsible for record productivity gains in the United States. As Alan Greenspan used to say frequently, that's the real force behind the standard-of-living improvements that have made America one of the most affluent nations in history.

So Murthy should be a front-line advocate of better living through technology, right? Wrong.

"As we invent more and more technologies, will our quality of life improve?" he mused recently. "I don't think so."

Murthy, in fact, probes human nature as incisively as he might troubleshoot a motherboard. And he's refreshingly insightful for a computer guy. Around the conference table at Infosys's U.S. headquarters, in the middle of Manhattan, the soft-spoken tech guru recently shared some insights, as he prepares to retire as chairman of Infosys.

"Unfortunately," he observed, "the human mind is so adaptive that we get these gadgets, and we want to tackle bigger and bigger problems. The human mind will continue to do more and more challenging things in life."

That's how progress happens, of course. But it's also how we become indentured to technology, lose balance, and wonder how we got off track. We all love to complain about the tyranny of cellphones and E-mail, for example, and it's fashionable to yearn for the simpler days of writing letters, placing expensive long-distance phone calls, and communicating infrequently with faraway family members. Here's how Murthy reflects on those days.

"Think of the 1950s and compare it to now," he observed, referring to all the supposedly life-improving gizmos that have been invented over the past 50 years. "Theoretically, we should have so much free time. But we also invented all these extra activities. I don't think we'll ever have more free time to go to the beach and relax."

Wow. That sure sounds like my life. I keep trying to get to the bottom of my to-do list, but it only gets longer, as I spend my time filling up my MP3 player, playing around with digital photos, and buying stuff I don't need on eBay. I've given up trying to whittle my E-mail inbox down to zero entries. And it's only going to get worse, Murthy wryly predicted: "We will continue to have less time to ourselves. We will have more and more mental stress, more psychological problems. We'll be in more of a hurry to do things."

Murthy is scheduled to retire as chairman of Infosys in August, becoming nonexecutive chairman. He plans to spend more time working with foundations that serve children and to stay active on the boards of various universities. I baited him, asking if he thought he would manage to relax in retirement or if he anticipated more stress. He grinned and philosophized, "We are all victims. We're going to become less and less happy. We have no choice."

--Rick Newman