Are Our Communications Killing Our Ability to Communicate?

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Crowd of One is an interesting book by John Henry Clippinger, a senior fellow at the Beckman Centre for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School. One of the central thoughts of the book is that people only become themselves through their relationship with others. If we become isolated our growth becomes stunted. Critical to this thought is another, namely that technology is changing our territorial and psychological boundaries.

This point is picked up by Sherry Turkle at MIT who argues that: “what people mostly want from public spaces these days is to be left alone with their personal networks” and that a new “state of self” is now developing whereby people can transport themselves somewhere else at the touch off a button.

I think I’ve witnessed this first hand. First on holiday where numerous couples were sunbathing next to a swimming pool, each of them on some kind of portable electronic device. What were they doing? I have no idea but they certainly weren’t talking to each other. They were undoubtedly connected to something but I couldn’t tell you whether their ‘self’ was developing or not.

The second instance was when I took my brother’s kids to an indoor playground. Soon after I sat down a couple in their late twenties sat down next to me with a girl aged perhaps six years of age. The girl was dispatched into the safe play area and both parents took out Blackberries and proceeded to check email. They did this for over sixty minutes without once speaking to each other or acknowledging the presence of their small daughter. Again, they were certainly connected but to what and for what reason I’m not sure.

It’s the same at work. Ten or fifteen years ago people didn’t take calls in the middle of meetings. Today it’s commonplace. I was in a meeting with News Corp not so long ago when someone from their ad agency took a call and the rest of the room was put on hold for almost ten minutes until the call had ended. You can see this teleportation process in operation in countless restaurants too where couples are talking to each one minute and then divert to receiving phone calls or checking emails the next.

Back in the day this would have been considered rather rude and people would have switched these devices off or hidden them under the table. These days it’s just considered normal and these devices are proudly and openly on public display.

In short, we are becoming so tethered to our electronic devices that we never entirely switch off and escape from the presence of others. Now this may be a very good thing in terms of the development of individual identity, because we are constantly connected to other people, but I wonder what it’s doing to the quality of our thinking.

Firstly, our connectedness to others through digital networks means that a culture of rapid response has developed in which the speed of our response is sometimes considered more important than its substance. We shoot off email mails that are half thought out and long-term strategic thinking is constrained by a lack of proper thinking time. We are always responding to what’s urgent rather than what’s important. I could have probably put all that together a lot better but I’m pushed for time and really can’t be bothered.

This connectedness is constant but our full attention is only partial as a result. Linda Stone, an ex Microsoft researcher, coined the term Constant Partial Attention to describe the fact that we feel some kind of need to scan electronic and digital environments to ensure that we are not missing out on something more important. We don’t want to be left out of the loop. As a result, nobody feels secure enough to leave these electronic devices off for an hour during a meeting, let alone for a week when they are sitting next to a pool on holiday.

But it’s not necessarily speed that worries me. There is evidence from Malcolm Gladwell and others that many of our best decisions are made when we have little or no time to think. We can probably get away with this for a while, especially when the decisions that need to be made are fairly unimportant, but sooner or later I suspect our lack of aloneness and reflection will catch up with us.

We just don’t switch off, ever, which means we never truly create the time to properly reflect. We scroll through our days without thinking about what we are really doing or where we are ultimately going.

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Emerging tech timeline in Wired magazine

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Really nice spread in this month’s issue of Wired magazine showing the technology timeline that I developed late last year with Imperial College (hand drawn draft above).

Here’s the original link to the map, together with details of the high resolution PDF. If anyone would like to order an A3 full colour hard copy these are available, although there’s a very small charge to cover post and packing.

Original post on tech timeline here….

Interesting list of technologies that didn’t quite make it onto the timeline here…

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What’s Next – issue 36

The new issue of my What’s Next trends magazine has just gone live. Find it right here.

Also, below, is a sneak peek of the new brainmail.

Have you heard of auxetic substances? Thought not. These are really new and really interesting materials that get thicker, rather than thinner, when stretched. Not only does physical form change when subject to external force, the material stores energy very quickly too. What could you possibly do with such materials? How about blast resistant curtains or dental floss that gets into the tricky bits?
Ref: Economist Technology Quarterly (UK)

Ever fancied a computer the size of a snowflake? Scientists around the world are working on tiny computers with skeleton operating systems that can report on conditions nearby. Powered by sunlight, vibrations or temperature change such dot-sized devices could monitor buildings or be injected into a tumour to monitor growth. Most useful of all, perhaps, people could embed motes into everything they owned in the physical world and then be able to conduct searches from them in virtual worlds. “Where are my keys?”
Ref: New Scientist (UK)

Is your boyfriend or girlfriend becoming more trouble than they’re worth? Or perhaps you’re not in a relationship, but the social (media) pressure to be coupled is just too much. Well a solution (some say) is at hand. For $24.99 a month, a Minnesota-based app allows you to have a relationship with a virtual boyfriend/girlfriend who not only texts you back, but will engage with you in conversation.
Ref: Daily Mail (UK)

A study by Ilsedore Cleeves at the University of Michigan says that half the water on earth is older than the sun, having been carried here as interstellar ice. The study also claims that water is far more common than we previously thought out in deep space.
Ref: New Scientist (UK)

You’ve no doubt heard of Tom’s shoes and perhaps One Water. How about Who Gives a Crap (sorry, but that’s what it’s called). 2.5 billion people (roughly 40% of the world’s people) don’t have regular access to a clean toilet, which means that diarrhea related diseases kill 2,000 children under 5 every day. Three enterprising Aussies have come up with a way to help. Order their toilet paper online, it gets delivered to your door and 50% of profits go to Wateraid to build clean toilets in the developing world.
Ref: Grapevine (Aus)

It seems that some people feel better inside if they spend time outside. Ecominds is a scheme run by the mental health charity Mind in the UK. Projects use nature, especially woodland activities, to help people with mental health problems improve their confidence and self-esteem.

If you’re a scientist drowning in digital data then Sciencescape might be for you. The site is essentially a “twitter-like experience” that allows academics to filter science stories using chosen categories. One aim is to allow people to ‘follow’ specific geographical places or even individual buildings.
Ref: The Scientist (US)

Following news that Google has withdrawn the Google Glass prototype from the market comes news that the Google X shunk works is developing smart contact lenses that can analyse a user’s tears to detect medical problems.
Ref: International Business Times (UK)

It’s not been widely reported but Google has been buying roughly one company per week since 2010. Not surprisingly, many of the companies and technologies are involved in search, or autonomous devices that one way or another finds out more about people, although a great many are in robotics and artificial intelligence.
Ref: Business Insider/CBC News

Danes that drink regular Sprite are 10% less likely to support the welfare system than Danes that drink Sprite Zero.
Ref: Harper’s (US)

In 1975, the cost of the fastest supercomputer was $5,000,000.
You can currently buy a used iPhone 4, which is roughly equal in performance (mflops), for $80 on eBay.
Ref: McKinsey/Brainmail

The cost of factory automation relative to human labour has fallen by half since 1990.
Der Spiegel (Germany)

In the UK two-thirds of 11-year-olds in the UK have a television in their bedroom.
Ref: The Times (UK)

The average automobile now contains 60 microprocessors.
MIT Tech Review (US)

6% of people living in New York that own a smartphone admit to having used it to make an online purchase during a funeral.
Ref: Harper’s (US)

There are now more Christians in China than members of the Communist Party.
Ref: Financial Times magazine (UK)

Worldwide, three times as many people die of obesity than die of starvation
Ref: Daily Telegraph (UK)

Since 2007, the number of prisoners in solitary confinement in the New York area has risen by 63%.
Ref: Harper’s (US)

It took 76 years for 50% of US homes to acquire a landline telephone. With cell-phones it took just 7.
Ref: PWC (UK)

“True love is a lack of desire to check one’s smartphone in another’s presence.” – Alain de Botton

From Counterculture to Cyberculture by Fred Turner (2006)

Nomcore (noun) describes people that wear unfashionable clothing as a fashion statement.
Ref: Daily Telegraph (UK)

WEB SIGHT OF THE MONTH: The Way back machine
What the web used to look like back in the day

To receive regular bites of brainmail, sign up free here….

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Is it just me or does Jibo (“The world’s first family robot”) look a little like Kenny from the TV series Southpark?

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Brainmail stat pack

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Had a lovely lunch yesterday and dreamt up a new idea with a business called Artefact. Using the content from the last ten years worth of brainmail (!) I’m going to create a stat pack that can be used in workshops for strategic provocations and idea generation. Hopefully have some available in a month or so.

Currently working with Ross Dawson in Sydney on a thought leadership report, about to put What’s Next issue number 36 up and working on the new book.

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Plumpton Parish Council. Part an an experiment. Ignore.

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Job available in tech futures research

I wouldn’t usually do this, but it’s for Imperial College London, with whom I have a relationship. Anyone out there (youngish) with a crystal ball looking for a job in ‘futures’ but with a top-notch academic institution rather than some tiny tinpot company? You might even get to work with me a bit on a map! (that’s enough to put most people off).

Foresight analyst – Enterprise ventures

Salary range £ 43,530-52,630

Location: London – South Kensington campus

Closing date 19 January

More here.


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Lost Connection

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The world is more talkative now than at any time in its history, but this is increasingly at the expense of meaningful conversation. We are talking at rather than to each other, at least that’s the view of Sherry Turkle, a Professor at MIT’s Media Lab and author of the book Alone Together. Mobile devices, especially smart-phones, have invaded formerly quiet and/or private spaces and we appear to be spending more time looking downward (at screens) that outward (at each other or our environment). Friendship, even love, are being mediated through screens and the real world is increasingly being looked at second-hand and through filters.

In an article in the Huffington Post, the photographer Babycakes Romero points out that there is “symmetry” to individuals on mobile devices and that couples and even groups are: “locked simultaneously yet separately into the same action.” He also comments upon the: “sadness to the proceedings”. Some individuals remove themselves further, wearing headphones to cut out auditory distractions or virtual reality headsets to remove other people altogether.

To some extent we are now using smartphones and other devices much in the same way that we used to use cigarettes, to pass the time or to hide our social awkwardness, but perhaps it is the devices themselves that are causing this awkwardness. You might argue that in a culture dominated by individuals and personalization there is less common culture to talk about, or perhaps we are using our devices to hide our fundamental loneliness or insecurity. Hence our endless quest for validation and approval.

Our devices are certainly inducing silence, although we have simultaneously become less able to deal with it. We have lost, or we are losing, both the ability and the desire to be alone. Hence, mobile devices are providing an excise for people, especially couples, to withdraw rather than engage in conversation and to keep the world (and each other) at a controllable distance.

Whether or not there is an emerging etiquette regarding mobile device use is uncertain.

A few years ago the answer would have been no. But now some people are beginning to understand that the use of certain devices in certain situations is either rude or awkward. But these people remain an exception. Even using phones during funerals (“RIP, innit”) is not quite as frowned upon as it once was.

Another of Babycake Romero’s observations is that when people are engaged with a mobile device they don’t seem mentally present and are not enjoying the moment or other person for what it or they are. This is especially apparent in restaurants where the “dining dead” (his phrase) can hardly look at each other, such is the pull of the prospect of incoming information.

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Clearly what we are really saying here is that I like you, but that you could be trumped at any moment by something or someone else. This can hardly be good for our self-esteem so, in an ironic twist, we are more likely to turn to our mobile devices and cyberspace to satisfy our hunger for connection. An endless cycle of disconnection and connection.

A final, but important, point is that when we do present ourselves through mobile devices (and social media in particular) our identity is contrived. It is rarely the real us. Instead we use a fake identity that is consciously manipulated and manicured. Through our screens we appear happier, more optimistic and more successful than we really are. The nature of these on-screen conversations also favours showmanship and extroversion.

The end result is that our connections are partly based upon false information, but also that we end up believing our own false PR. This situation can endure for a long time, but at some point we will be inevitably be mugged by reality.

Images: Copyright Babycakes Romero (with thanks)

References: Huffington Post (UK), 27 October 2014, ‘Photographer Babycakes Romero caputures the death of dining’ due to smartphones’ (P. Bell). See also ‘The flight from conversation’ by S. Turkle, New York  Times (US) 21 April 2012. and ‘Saving the lost art of conversation’ by M. Garber, Atlantic Monthly (US) January 2014.

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The Future of You

Something light for the new year.

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1) New Year Resolution grid from Ian Fitzpatrick (via Artefact Cards).
More about here

2) Love, work & money (i.e. career planning) by Remo Giuffre.
More about here

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The death of conversation

This is worth a look, if only for the photographs.

Huffington Post – Impact of smartphones

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