In the spring of 1997, during a presentation in Paris on IBM’s new e-business strategy, the CIO of a major European retail chain mentioned that his company had just spent a lot of money remodeling their stores. He was wondering if they had done the right thing, given all this new economy talk. We were in the middle of the dot-com frenzy, and the buzz in the air was that in the Internet-based new economy, brick-and-mortar businesses, like other businesses grounded in the physical world, could not possibly compete in this fast-moving digital space and were therefore headed for extinction.
Similar questions were being raised all around us. In my local library, in whose advisory council I have been serving since those days, we were making plans to leverage the new Internet capabilities, such as introducing an online catalog and providing wireless Internet access in the library building. But we were also wondering if a library building would be needed at all in the future, given the growing digitization of books, music, videos and just about all content.
As it has turned out, the Internet, along with the overall digital revolution has proven to be a transformation of true historical proportions, propelling us from the industrial society of the past two centuries to a new kind of information society and knowledge-based economy. But, it has not quite worked out the way some predicted back in those dot-com bubble days.
The physical world continues to be alive and well. No one is asking questions about the viability of cities, given that people can now work and shop virtually. To the contrary, urbanization is one of the biggest trends of the 21st century. According to the UN Population Division, more people now live in urban areas than in rural areas. That proportion will rise to over over 60 percent by 2030, and close to 70 percent by 2050. Over the next four decades, all the world’s population growth will take place in urban areas, in addition to the continuing migration of the rural population to cities.
Furthermore, the Web has evolved toward its Web 2.0, social networking phase. And, these social networking capabilities have reminded us that humans are inherently social. We get together, establish communities and organize into a wide variety of institutions to get things done more effectively. We like to communicate, share ideas and learn from each other.
Recent studies are also showing that virtual connections are not enough for most people, - they continue to value physical, face-to-face encounters. That is why cities compete with each other to attract talented people, who like to be in close proximity with, and learn from each other. And, while our local library has established a strong digital presence, it has also become a kind of community campus, with the number of physical visitors to the library growing through the years. In fact, a capital campaign is now under way to raise funds for a new library building to better handle its growing need for physical space. So, at least for now, the physical and digital worlds are nicely co-existing with each other.
But, as NY Times columnist Tom Friedman observed in a conference last Fall, in the last few years we have gone from a world that was connected to a world that is now hyperconnected. In the last few years, the explosive growth of smart mobile devices, cloud services and apps, broadband wireless networks, Twitter and Facebook have propelled us from a flat to a hyperconnected world. And, along with a whole new round of near-magical capabilities, our technologies are raising new concerns about their impact on people.
These concerns have been especially well framed by MIT professor and author Sherry Turkle in her recently published book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, and in a widely watched talk given at TED this past February, - Connected, but Alone?
Professor Turkle said that when she gave her first Ted talk in 1996, she was all excited about the experimentation going on with chat rooms and virtual communities. “We were exploring different aspects of ourselves. And then we unplugged. I was excited. And, as a psychologist, what excited me most was the idea that we would use what we learned in the virtual world about ourselves, about our identity, to live better lives in the real world.”
“Now fast-forward to 2012,” she adds. “I’m back here on the TED stage again. . . I’m still excited by technology, but I believe, and I’m here to make the case, that we’re letting it take us places that we don’t want to go.”
After interviewing hundreds of people about their plugged-in lives over the past 15 years, she has concluded that “those little devices in our pockets, are so psychologically powerful that they don’t only change what we do, they change who we are. Some of the things we now do with our devices are things that, only a few years ago, we would have found odd or disturbing, but they’ve quickly come to seem familiar, just how we do things.”
What are some of those once disturbing things that have now come to seem familiar? Texting and doing e-mail during business meetings of all kinds, during classes, while having meals with our families, even at funerals. Having trouble making eye contact with the person we are supposed to be having a conversation, who is being constantly interrupted and simultaneously texting someone else. Hanging out with a group of people, each of which is barely paying attention to each other while doing something else online.
I am afraid that these are behaviors most of us recognize, - in ourselves, our colleagues, our friends, and our children. When we think about it, at the very least this is bad manners. After all, it would be considered quite rude to be reading a newspaper while attending a seminar, class or meeting. Why is it then OK to be constantly paying attention to our mobile devices instead of the people physically around us? Is it less rude because it feels more discrete? Is it perhaps because they are personal, almost an extension of ourselves?
Beyond the bad manners, why does it matter? Isn’t this just multitasking, a way of making more efficient use of our time and our brains by filling up all those pauses that naturally occur in conversations with interactions with far away people and websites. We are trying to customize and overly control our lives, paying attention only to those things that seem relevant in each of the tasks we are engaged in. We want to connect with people, but only in amounts we can control, what Turkle calls the Goldilocks effect: “not too close, not too far, just right.”
Turkle believes this alone together behavior means trouble, not just for how we relate with each other, but how we relate to ourselves. She worries that being constantly, but superficially connected to each other is making both genuine connections and genuine self-reflection impossible.
The problem is that controlled connections over texting or e-mail are very different from having a conversation, let alone being involved in a human relationship. Conversations take place in real time, so we do not get to edit what we say. We are interacting with another person, listening and reacting to them as well as talking.
“Human relationships are rich and they’re messy and they’re demanding,” says Turkle. “And we clean them up with technology. And when we do, one of the things that can happen is that we sacrifice conversation for mere connection. We short-change ourselves. . . [W]e use conversations with each other to learn how to have conversations with ourselves. So a flight from conversation can really matter because it can compromise our capacity for self reflection. For kids growing up, that skill is the bedrock of development.”
She believes that our smartphones offer us three gratifying fantasies: that we can put our attention wherever we want it to be; that we will always be heard; and that we will never have to be alone. “And that third idea, that we will never have to be alone, is central to changing our psyches. Because the moment that people are alone, even for a few seconds, they become anxious, they panic, they fidget, they reach for a device.”
So, will we be able to adjust to this hyperconnected phase of the Internet, just like we seem to have adjusted to the initial connected phase by finding a reasonable balance between the physical and digital worlds? We now have to find a reasonable balance between paying quality attention to the people around us and being able to respond to the little devices constantly vying for our attention.
I am optimistic that we will. So is Turkle. Many of the behaviors she describes, - the interruptions while talking to someone, the lack of attention in meetings and classes, and so on, - are things we find annoying in others. And, while we are guilty of similar behaviors, deep down we know they are not right. Once we shine a spotlight on such annoying behaviors, they tend to lessen, until we reach the right balance. This is how rules of etiquette and codes of behavior generally evolve.
Look, for example, at a period piece like Mad Men to see how every day behaviors like smoking in restaurants and at business meetings, drinking during the day, and interactions with women in the workplace have changed in the intervening fifty years. While initially it took ordinances to change some of these behaviors, they have now become part of good etiquette.
I suspect that we will spend less time with friends from whom we can only get superficial attention because they are always doing something else. We will likely stop inviting colleagues to meetings if they don’t contribute to the discussions because their attention is elsewhere. And, while Twitter, Facebook and texting are now commanding our attention, who knows what their usage and popularity will be five years from now.
Throughout history, we have had a symbiotic relation with our technologies. They indeed change what we do, who we are and how we deal with each other. But, we equally influence and change our technologies. And, to survive beyond their initial novelty years, technologies need to not only bring us exciting new capabilities, but they must do so while successfully adapting to the way we live.