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How Technology is Compromising the Human Condition

August 30, 2014

alone with our phones

I see dead people. No, I see zombies. They walk aimlessly down the street and swerve into my lane on the highway. They’re not under the spell of a witch or voodoo overlord; they’re controlled by their smartphones.

I See Zombies Everywhere

Zombies have taken over planet Earth. As I walk past a gym, zombies (in workout clothes) exit. Arm extended, phone in palm, shoulders hunched forward. Forget about making eye contact. These zombies are focused on the latest text, tweet or email. They can’t be bothered by humans.

texting-while-drivingWhen a car swerves briefly into my lane, or when a driver is going 35 MPH in a 70 MPH zone, it’s invariably driven by a zombie: one hand on the wheel, the other holding a phone.

Eyes pointed straight down. Talented zombies use two phones, while steering the car with the backs of their hands.

Visit a restaurant these days and you’ll see zombies seated at the bar, eating a meal by themselves. Fork in one hand, phone in the other. It’s difficult to tell which they enjoy more (food or phone). Forget about talking to the bartender or to other patrons. The phone rules.

Oh, and have you seen the deranged zombies? Their Bluetooth earpiece is neatly hidden. As you approach them, they’re talking really loud. It’s just the two of you on the street, so you say, “What?” The zombie pays you no attention, walks on by and continues his conversation.

Technology and The Human Condition

Call me an old timer, but I’m concerned about technology’s impact on the human condition. I remember the B.C. era (“Before Cellphone”). We made eye contact, we made conversation. We talked to strangers. We talked to friends.

Today? We make more eye contact with our phone’s camera lens (selfies!), while human-to-human conversation is at historic lows. We’re so concerned about the email that arrived two minutes ago that we may not see the car that’s swerving onto the sidewalk.

Let’s consider how we got here.

Why We’re Victims of Technology

Hyperconnectedness

blackberry smartphone

It all started with the BlackBerry. Early generations of the device looked like extra-large pagers.

But these pagers were electronic handcuffs. Now, your inbox followed you wherever you went.

To the gym, to the beach or to sleep, the BlackBerry would buzz on each new email.

And the world would never be the same.

Now, you could email the VP Sales for a pricing request and she’d reply one minute later. You could invite a friend for dinner and know that he’d reply in an hour or less. You could lie on the beach for the afternoon, but still keep tabs on your inbox.

It’s Our Primary Channel of Communication

The phone was a fabulous piece of technology. We could speak to one another across large distances. Today, smartphone users under 20 may not know about the “phone” in their smartphone. Adults have followed suit.

Related Post: 10 Reasons Texting Has Taken Over the World

We speak to each other far less than before. Instead, we text, email and chat. For important life moments, we no longer call family members. Instead, we’ll post to Instagram or Facebook and let them learn about it there.

FOMO becomes FOMU

Our “fear of missing out” has become a “fear of missing (the most recent) update.” I’m guilty of this for sure: I’m quick to check for the latest email and the most recent Twitter mention or Facebook Like.

Technology has created this constant anxiety of “staying on top of things,” as if there’s value in seeing an email minutes after it arrives. That’s why some people sleep with their phone by their side, and invite it to buzz on each new message. When you disrupt sleep, you disrupt the human condition.

Why I’m Concerned

Health and Safety

Scientists have studied links between cell phone use and cancer risk (see this fact sheet from the National Cancer Institute and this CNN article about a World Health Organization study). My gut tells me that prolonged use of cell phones can have harmful, long term effects on the body.

There are more direct hazards, too. One afternoon, I left my office to grab lunch. I was checking email as I walked to my car. Because I wasn’t fully aware of my surrounding environment, I nearly walked into an oncoming car.

A Forbes article notes that “texting distractions may have been a contributing factor in the 4,280 pedestrian traffic fatalities recorded during 2010,” according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Technology Will Continue to Develop and Evolve

together yet alone

Consider Google Glass.

On the one hand, technology gets more seamlessly integrated (e.g. check email via Glass).

On the other hand, it makes it even easier to disengage from more meaningful human connection (e.g. check email on Glass while your friend is trying to talk to you).

When they visit my house, I say hi to the friendly delivery staff from FedEx, UPS and the US Postal Service. Those conversations will take a different form when those deliveries are performed by drones.

I’m concerned about the evolution of the human species. With continued advances in technology, will we lose the ability to talk to one another?

What We Can Do About It

Let the Phone Wait

I used to have a rule where I’d come home from work and put away the phone. It would sit in a drawer until after dinner’s been eaten and the dishes washed. Later that evening, I’d open the phone to check for calls, texts and emails. Sadly, that rule fell by the wayside.

But I ought to return to it.

We need to seize control back from the phones who rule us. Aside from emergencies, let the phone wait! The email you received a minute ago can wait an hour. Heck, it’s not the end of the world if you reply to that email tomorrow.

The key is to condition yourself. Maybe you need a habit like mine (though I hope you do a better job sticking to it). We’ll live healthier lives if we arrange for periods where we “make the phone wait.”

Alternatively, you could go to a summer camp like the one described in this New York Times article.

Go Out and Meet New People

go out and meet people

Technology has a way of hardening our shell or keeping us within a bubble.

When you’re immersed in your email, checking your Twitter stream or responding to a text, you’re not “available” to those around you.

Technology makes it too easy to be in a room full of people, but really be alone to ourselves. So make it a point to meet five new people each week. Beyond getting their names, get to know their stories, their interests and their passions.

If you’ve developed online relationships (e.g. via Twitter), arrange to meet in person. The human connection is unique and special.

Learn to Enjoy and Appreciate Your Surroundings

In the Bay Area, my average weather day is 70 degrees and sun. Depending on where I am, I can get views of the Bay, giant Sequoia trees or the Golden Gate Bridge. But I can be blind to it all if my face is planted in my phone.

When we immerse ourselves in technology, it makes us take things for granted. We must find occasions to leave the world of our inbox and explore the larger world around us. This is a behavior that must be learned and reinforced.

Now when I grab lunch at work, I’ll leave the phone in my pocket and enjoy the afternoon weather. But I can feel the phone calling out to me and I’ll sometimes suffer a relapse. I’ll pull out the phone and check email. Meanwhile, another car is pulling out of its parking spot.

Share Your Thoughts

What do you think? Are you comfortable with where technology is heading? Are you concerned about the future of human-to-human connection and interaction?

Let’s continue the conversation below. And if I ever bump into you on the street, please call me out if my face is stuck in my phone. I may have been zombie-fied!

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What Virtual Events Can Learn From Twitter

October 13, 2009

Virtual Events - Twitter

Virtual Events - Twitter

In 2009, Twitter has taken the world by storm – in fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if Time magazine named Twitter their Person of the Year.  In my opinion, Twitter’s success hinges on its simplicity, celebrity (use by celebrities, that is) and portability (users stay connected to the service from nearly anywhere).

While virtual events have been around for a few years – they too took the world by storm in 2009 – mostly, the business-to-business world.  As we look forward into 2010, here’s what virtual events can learn from Twitter:

  1. 140 characters or less – I often find it a challenge to condense my thought into 140 characters – the usual trick is to lean on acronyms (or abridged versions of words) to get under the limit.  The better approach is to be more efficient, using less words to make the same point.  While I still get frustrated at times (having to distill my thought down to 140 characters) – other times, I find that my message comes across clearer and more elegant in the shorter form.  In virutal events, a lot of chatter (e.g. group chat in the Lounge) is long-winded.  It would be interesting to participate in a group chat in which each chat message was limited to 140 characters.  I get the feeling that the chat would be much more enjoyable and productive.
  2. Application Programming Interface (API) – Twitter was recently valued at $1B – it couldn’t have possibly reached that valuation without it’s excellent API and the rich ecosystem that’s been created by developers and start-ups.  The API has made possible desktop clients such as Tweetdeck and Seesmic Desktop, along with numerous third party services, such as Tweetbeep, Twimailer and many more.  Virtual event platform providers should look to “open up” their platform via API’s – allowing show hosts and exhibitors to tap into underlying registration data; customize the look and feel of their events; and develop functional mini-apps that ride on top of the platform.  As Twitter discovered, opening up the platform creates a “wealth” of opportunity.
  3. Mobile support – Twitter’s API allow for applications like TwitterBerry (for BlackBerry) and Tweetie (for iPhone).  Users are increasingly on the go these days – whereby less and less interaction with the web occurs from their desk and keyboard.  Virtual event platforms that can extend their reach to smartphones will stand to benefit greatly – adoption will increase, as will average session time and overall session counts.  Twitter also integrates with the Short Messaging Service (SMS) – making access nearly universal (e.g. from non-smartphone cell phones).  Perhaps there are capabilities in a virtual event that can also be triggered via “commands” transmitted via SMS.
  4. Connecting with others – Twitter’s growth in 2009 has resulted from (a) needing to connect with your friends, family and colleagues who are already on the service and (b) a desire to “follow” celebrities or sports figures.  In business-to-business virtual events, you won’t have this same sort of dynamic (wanting to follow others) – however, the platforms can do a better job of finding and recommending folks you should be following or connected to.  For instance, a CIO at a small-and-medium sized business (SMB) may want to know that a CIO from another SMB company is also in attendance.
  5. Self service / self starter – Many companies are now active on Twitter, to provide customer outreach, customer service, outbound marketing and even e-commerce sales.  Other than learning the basics of social media and Twitter etiquette, the process to get started with Twitter is very straightforward.  Virtual event platform providers ought to provide a means for curious/inquisitive users to set themselves up with a test event – some day, configuring your virtual event (a basic one, at least) should be analogous to creating a new blog in WordPress.

And there you have it – adopt these five principles and your virtual event platform may some day be worth $1B as well!


Virtual Events In A Wireless World

February 21, 2009

Some day soon: virtual event on PDA?

Some day soon: virtual event on PDA?

Whether it’s business use or personal use, we’ve begun to expect that applications on our PDA’s mirror those available on our PC’s and laptops.  For business, it’s largely corporate email today – the ability to read and respond  (around the clock, I might add!).  For personal use, it’s email (e.g. Yahoo Mail, Gmail, etc.), instant messaging, web browsing and (of course) interacting with our social media sites.

I recently purchased a BlackBerry 8830 – my first step (after verifying that calls to my cellular number were ported over to the BlackBerry) was to set up access to my corporate email.  After that, the series of steps I embarked on were not unlike the set-up of a new PC or laptop – downloading applications that I’ve become accustomed to.  The short list so far is:

  1. AOL Instant Messenger (AIM)
  2. A Twitter client (I selected TwitterBerry)
  3. The Facebook client for BlackBerry

With this collection of apps, I’m able to be on the go, but stay connected with corporate and personal email, stay in touch with friends and colleagues via AIM and keep tabs on my social networks (next up: the BlackBerry client for Netflix).  Virtual events are a combination of business and social networking applications.  Thus, I believe that pretty soon, business users will come to expect virtual events to work on their PDA’s.

Attendees would be able to visit vendor booths and peruse vendor content (while on the go) and exhibitors would be able to interact with booth visitors via a wireless connection.  The “live date” of a virtual event is often planned months in advance – and often times, scheduling conflicts arise for exhibitors – whether it be an important client meeting or attendance at a physical event.  I’m sure that exhibitors would value the convenience of doing basic booth duty from their PDA.

But how do we get there? First, formats like Flash (Adobe), Silverlight (Microsoft) and even JavaFX (Sun) will need stronger support and adoptoin onto PDA devices.  From doing a quick set of Google searches, the adoption (and support) doesn’t seem quite there today.  Here’s hopinng for a better tomorrow – where I’ll be seeing you at a virtual event … from our PDA’s.


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