Personal devices

On my to the gym today, I sat next to a young lady in the train. She was playing Candy Crush on her iPhone 6 while simultaneously watching an episode of Arrow on her iPad Mini. How she was able to do this and still enjoy both I don’t know. I looked at the rest of the passengers in the carriage. If they weren’t talking on the phone, they were looking at their devices or at the very least they had their ear phones on.

I felt a tad anachronistic reading a dead tree book in my hand. I was compelled to whip out my HTC One just to blend in. I was able to resist.

Like me if you are an avid observer of human nature and old enough to have used a typewriter, carbon paper and snopake, then if you take a pause, you would realise that this is a relatively recent phenomenon. After all it was not that long ago when taking out one’s mobile phone and talking out loud amidst people was a big no-no. Now, it’s de rigueur. So much so that if you really pay close attention, you could hear the juiciest and most confidential matters discussed in the most public of places.

This me and my personal device in social settings has become so prevalent. So much so that an increasing number of us are considering it an anti-social epidemic. I’ve been seeing a lot of commentary on photos showing dinner tables where everyone is glued to their devices instead of of engaging with each other; concerts and other public events where a sea of screens are recording what’s happening (arguably, instead of these people being fully present to enjoy the moment); also in public transport and waiting places where again people are glued to their devices. Ironically, these photos and commentary are shared in Instagram and Facebook - the very same social media networks the commentators are complaining about.

Have we really unleashed an anti-social epidemic or is it just a few people’s overreaction to a pervasive technological disruption in how we connect with each other?

It might help to look back at a similar event in history. When writing was invented some people expressed concern that this would ruin people’s memories. After all before the invention of writing the tribe’s stories and knowledge had to be committed to memory (usually by being recited or sang in verse as an aide memoire) and passed on orally. And yes, it was true that writing did somehow diminish people’s ability to memorize songs and epics. However, it also enabled people to collect, preserve, and pass on a lot more of our collective knowledge. More importantly, the invention of writing enabled people to be more introspective and ‘meta’ in their thinking. Without writing it would have been close to impossible to accurately recollect what people thought, felt and believed ten years ago. Even if people were able to remember, our recollection is very likely to be colored and tarnished by the intervening years, the state of mind and emotions of the person at the time of recollection.

However if a person wrote about their experience contemporaneous to the event, the written record could be a lot closer to the truth as experienced back when the event happened. In litigation, more weight is given to documents created contemporaneous to the relevant time over documents created after the event.

In retrospect the disruptive technology of writing wasn’t that bad after all. A diminished oral memory was an alright price to pay for the benefits the technology of writing brought.

In any case it seems that the oral tradition seems to be making a comeback. For example the growing way people consume information through online videos and audio over reading text.

Applying these to the issue of our personal devices: although it may make many people detach away from their immediate social circles and milieu, it could also connect them to other people and things they want to connect with that are outside their immediate vicinity.

In this light, the commuter train example given above can now be seen as more of a red herring. The young lady sitting next to me on the train did not know me from a bar of soap. It would have made sense for her to engage with her Candy Crush and Arrow double header. Same for the other people in the train carriage. They were texting and talking to people important to them. They were listening to the music they like. They were surfing websites to engage with content that they liked. Prior to these devices, these people would most likely be reading dead tree books, newspapers or simply staring out the window.

What these new social media networks accessed by mobile personal devices enable people to do is transcend their immediate surroundings and circumstances to seek other people who they can have different affiliations with based more on common interests rather than blood, geography, race, belief and other ‘luck of the draw’ circumstances.

Now with the Internet, social media networks, and these mobile devices, one can actively seek other people sharing their interests. It wouldn’t matter if two people sharing a common interest could live on the opposite sides of the world, they could still find each other. Or they could be two blocks away in a big city but hitherto couldn’t find one another.

They need not be limited to virtual connections. I recently came back from London where there seems to have been a Cambrian explosion of Meetup Groups. I found multiple groups in the topics I was interested in and then some. Groups of people meeting in the flesh enabled by social networks and personal mobile devices.

One lens we can use to look at this would be in terms of substitutes versus complements. Simply put: bad for you if you are what is being substituted by new technology, good for you if you are complemented rather than substituted.

Usually what is substituted by something better diminishes, what is complemented by better things thrives. For example the self-service point-of-sale kiosks introduced by supermarkets are technological substitutes for humans who used to do the scanning and bagging for customers. As people come to accept, get used to or may be even prefer these kiosks, we might see more of these and less check out chicks and chicos.

Contrast this to what Apple did with its retail stores where the point-of-sale iPads complements the Apple store salespeople instead of substituting them. The innovation lies here in making the point-of-sale comes to the customer instead of the customer queueing up to access the point of sale. Prior to this innovation, it was really kinda rude to make customers line up and wait (sometimes for a long time) for the privilege of handing over money to the retailer. The Apple Store retail model is so successful that I believe they are hiring more store people compared to other retailers who are trying to get rid of them.

So are social networks and mobile personal devices substitutes or complements to actual human contact? To me they are complements. There is no substitute for face-to-face meeting and pressing skin. That is why even with the growth in tele and video conferencing, people still accumulate frequent flyer air miles.