Is hardware the biggest stumbling block in the advancement of human connection?
These days it is unlikely to come across a publication online that hasn’t featured some semblance of an article that spouts the ‘dangers’ of social media. As a millenial, it's interesting to observe how these articles condemn our generation as being the willing arbiters of a plight of narcissism, superficiality and self-obsession. The perception is that as a result of a perpetually increasing amount of screen time, humanity is inadvertently becoming more introverted. Our focus is being drawn from the world around us toward a biased version of ourselves we have created online; and this is embodied through text, image and sound coming from a 5-inch device that sits in the palm of our hand. Online bullying, body image and misconceived perceptions of the happiness of others in comparison to ourselves are only some of the side-effects that are associated with the detrimental side of partially living online.
But you know all this… Whether one agrees with any of the above statements or not, it is undeniable that our growing attachment to mobile devices is inherently changing our behaviors as human beings; in relation to ourselves and in relation to one another. What I mean by this is that there are two realms of awareness. The first is the inward-facing awareness of (and concern with) what is happening online, and it is contained in that little piece of hardware that our gaze is continually positioned downward at. The second is our outward awareness of the world around us, the people interacting with us and the happenings of our surroundings.
For example, there are some individuals that may find it awkward to stand alone and wait for a bus. Fortunately, they can avoid having to converse with anyone around them by spiraling downward into the vortex of their online selves; a galaxy which is safely nestled in their hand. Not only are they removing themselves from the healthy endeavor of conversation, but they are also avoiding eye-contact and spontaneous communication, something that perhaps our predecessors had no escape from and thus were more comfortable with and more practiced in.
Our methods of communication in the digital sphere are shifting too. We are beginning to engage with each other more often via photos and emojis at the expense of text and voice. Group chats and communicating in larger collaborations is becoming more and more popular. Our sense of proximity to those who surround us in the digital world is changing. Perhaps this is creating a more homogenous universal sensibility, ergo, making us less present to those whom within our physical proximity.
The information being presented to us is constantly being moderated. Firstly, by the intelligent programs who are showing us what we want to see, but also by our own browsing habits. We are personally filtering those whom we choose to view our information. This results in us weeding out opposing opinions. We inhabit a bubble of those with similar views to ours. Are we diminishing our tolerance levels to face the otherness of others? Is our growing online presence ‘making society ill’? Or are we simply creating a platform through which to display these ills? Is digital culture isolating us or expanding our virtual communities?
Over the last few decades, our relationship with technology has almost exclusively existed through the medium of hardware: PC’s, laptops, cell phones, tablets. Even if we are paying heed to the sights around us, there is more than likely a piece of hardware between our eyes and the subject to photograph or record it. We are effectively shorter-sighted than our ancestors (figuratively).
What if, however, the hardware was removed?
In his article The Disappearing Computer, editor of websites The Verge and Recode, Walt Mossberg, talks about ‘ambient computing’, which is essentially “…the transformation of the environment all around us with intelligence and capabilities that don’t seem to be there at all.” Hardware is shrinking, and in some cases, disappearing. Google glasses use AR to bridge the gap between eye-sight and using a touch screen. Facebook’s Regina Dugan has announced that their top-secret team is working on using the brain to type, and to control augmented reality devices, there are also reports that they are researching ways to ‘hear’ through your skin. The devices that were once essentially the ‘remote controls’ for us to access information and experiences are melting away from the definition of stand-alone hardware and more towards being integrated into items around us and even into our own skin in some cases.
By melding our online activities with the world around us through such technologies as AR, is it possible that the stigma of social media and technology being an isolating phenomenon will be dissipated? Our gaze shall eventually be lifted from the currently limiting handheld devices. Our digital community will no longer live in a world separated from those around us. Up until now, we have been extremely focused on objects and their processes and there has been a noticeable slowdown in momentum, but as Mossman observes: “…the roller coaster will be accelerating faster than ever, only this time it’ll be about actual experiences, with much less emphasis on the way those experiences get made.”
It’s exciting. The route back to appreciating the world around us, tribe culture, community-forming habits and human interaction may be becoming clearer. Perhaps we had to become introverted and obsessed with material devices to begin to use that fulcrum to move our gaze outward again; the world does work in cycles after all. Even though this generation does spend much of their time moving in circles in a digital sphere, it does speak to the human condition of needing to always feel part of something bigger than ourselves; family, community, city, country, Earth.
This burgeoning interface shall eventually only be perceivable to the users. Alerts and notifications will no longer warrant a visit to our pocket or purse and thus may not remove the person from a social situation or cause us to momentarily interrupt that link of engagement with another human. Our devices will be hidden -- we won’t have sore thumbs because they will be listening to us and anticipating what we need. Devices will be trained like pets through our voices, faces and gestures. Our button-clicking habit will be seen as being as efficient as starting a fire with a flint. But perhaps it shall bring us closer to our Neanderthal friends by re-introducing a more concrete concept of being ‘present’ than currently exists.