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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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My BFF and I Agree: 10 Reasons Texting Has Taken Over the World

February 4, 2013

Why texting has taken over the world

Photo source: User kamshots on flickr.

Introduction

I used to think texting was something that teens did: a form of instant messaging to gossip, coordinate meet-ups and talk about cute boys (or girls).

Nowadays, however, I find myself using texting as a primary form of communication with my peers – I’m talking folks, like me, in their 40’s. It’s also prevalent in the business world, from the meeting room to the board room.

Texting as Your BFF

Admit it: texting is your BFF. And it’s taken over the world. I pondered this phenomenon when I exceeded (for the first time) my texting limit earlier this month:

Oops! I texted too much this month

With each subsequent text incurring an overage fee, I decided to stop texting until the start of the next billing cycle. But lo and behold, it couldn’t be stopped! Friends and family continued to text me. And I had to reply to them the old fashioned way: email.

Let’s consider how (and why) texting has taken over the world.

1) It’s asynchronous.

Consider the phone call. You dial your friend. She hears the ring and has to be available to answer it. She answers and you talk. What if you simply needed to tell her that you’re running 10 minutes late? Does that really require the dial-answer-communicate cycle? Or how about a text that says “Running late. Be there in 10”? Done.

2) It’s threaded.

I remember receiving text messages on first generation cell phones. The user experience was poor. We’ve moved light years ahead on smartphones. Now, my conversation with each contact has its own “record” and I can see the back-and-forth messaging in one place. It’s like a permanent instant messaging window, holding the entire history of our conversation.

3) It’s universal.

Texting is universal

Photo source: User oregondot on flickr.

Whether it’s an iPhone, an Android phone or my parents’ 90’s era flip phone, every cell phone supports texting. This is one “application” in which you and your friend don’t need to download the same app. The app is built in to your phone.

4) Its notifications receive valuable screen real-estate.

While some may change the notifications settings on their phones, for most of us, an incoming text message receives high “priority.” The message pops up as a notification, usually accompanied by an audio alert. To check email, you have to open your email client. Texts, on the other hand, are visible the moment they come in.

5) It’s great for sharing photos.

Texting is Instagram without the filters. Long before Instagram hit the scene, people were sending each other photos via text message. Take a cute photo of your kid? Send it to family via text. As mentioned (above) with “notifications,” family members will see that photo right away. If you sent it via email? They’d probably see it much later.

6) There’s an expectation of near-immediate response.

Let’s say you need to urgently reach a colleague and she’s in a meeting. Do you interrupt the meeting and pull her out of it? Do you call her cell phone? Maybe in days past. These days, you send her a text message (perhaps labeled as “URGENT”) and chances are she’ll take the needed action. Immediately.

7-It’s short, it’s Twitter-like.

Tweeting is like texting

140 characters or less. It’s a big part of Twitter’s popularity and charm. With text messages, you get an additional 20 characters, for a total of 160! Endless email chains. Friends who just can’t seem to stop talking. With text messages, you get none of that. Instead, it’s 160 characters (or less) and you move on.

8) You can text in groups (if you want).

Yes, your 1:1 conversations can be extended to groups of friends (or colleagues). In a work setting, this could be especially useful when traveling together to a conference: coordinating meals, meet-ups and the like. In addition, there are numerous apps available to help you send group text messages on the cheap.

9) It delivers the entire payload at once.

Many email clients have a “preview pane,” in which you can read the body of the email (or the first portion of it). With texting, the entire payload of the message appears in the message notification. Often, I’ll receive a text, read it (via the message notification), then put away my phone. This adds to the efficiency of texting. Unlike email, there are times you don’t even have to open the “application.”

10) It’s resilient.

During natural disasters, voice service may be down, data service may be down, but text messaging is likely to survive. So your email won’t get through, your web site will be unreachable, but you can still send that text message. I’m sure texting is an important tool used by relief organizations and first responders today – and its use cases are sure to grow.


How Mobile Video Changes Things

July 15, 2011

Photo credit: Tommyvos on flickr.

Note: This is a collaborative blog post authored by Jim Reilly (@oldantler) and me.

Introduction

In the first generation of web-based video calling, families could stay in touch (e.g. Skype), while companies could conduct business meetings over several locations (e.g. Polycom, Cisco Telepresence, etc.). Mobile-based video calling options dramatically changes things.

iPhone users can now call one another via the pre-installed Facetime app, as long as both parties are connected to a WiFi network. With Skype app (iPhone, Android and Symbian), Skype users can video-call one another from their smarthphone over WiFi or 3G. Let’s consider a few use cases to demonstrate how mobile video changes things.

Calling Home While on Business Travel

Let’s say Mom has gone on a business trip for a few weeks. In a typical scenario, Mom calls home each night to check in with Dad and the kids. If Mom has her PC with Skype installed, perhaps they do a video call every other night. Now, imagine Mom has an iPhone. She connects to her hotel’s WiFi network and dials up her daughter at home using Facetime. The daughter has an iPod Touch and is connected to the WiFi network at home.

Now, Mom and daughter can see and hear one another. And with mobile, they can now see their surrounding environments as they walk about. When Mom asks, “Are you taking good care of my garden?”, the daughter can walk to the garden and give Mom a close-up view of the vegetables. When the daughter asks, “How is your hotel room?”, Mom can give her a quick tour.

Buying a New House Before Relocating

When a family relocates to another part of the country, the husband or wife typically heads out before the rest of the family, to secure housing and get things set up. This can make home-buying a challenge, as both spouses are not able to see the house before making a decision. Mobile video changes that.

Now, the husband can land in the new city, make appointments with a realtor, then video-call his wife to view the houses together. He can take his wife through the family room, kids’ bedrooms and yard.  While the listing page (on the web) for the house may provide panoramic, 360 degree views of the home, the mobile video-call transforms the 360 degree view from an “on-demand viewing” to a live guided tour.

Repairing a Server in The Data Center

A server has gone down and the only engineer available is the most junior member of your IT team. Not to fear – have him initiate a video call once he arrives. From there, senior members of your team can provide direction on how to fix the server.

The junior engineer powers down the server, then pulls out the blade server in slot 2. He points his smartphone at the server as the senior members explain how to carefully extract the card. Note that in this scenario, mounting the phone on a tripod would be helpful, to free up the junior engineer’s hands!

Emergency Services

A member of the public comes across an unconscious person in the street, dials the emergency services and is not only sent animated instructions to their phone, but the trained medical staff taking the call gives advice based on video observation of the subject, not just vague description. Vital minutes are saved to administer the correct first aid and potentially saves the person’s life.

Turning Trade Shows into Hybrid Events

Video calling can connect trade show and conference attendees with remote users who were not able to attend in person. The on-site attendee can take the remote attendee on a walk down the exhibit floor.

Exhibitors can take prospects through a tour of their booth, showing them their latest product offerings (in the same way you’d do in person). If the remote attendee switched to a desktop (e.g. with Skype), s/he could even conduct interviews with on-site attendees and post the interviews on a web site or blog. Mobile video allows the physical event experience to be shared with anyone.

Enhancing the Experience with Augmented Reality

With the development of augmented reality (AR), the examples above become even more useful and compelling: in home buying the video tour is augmented with room dimensions, distances from local amenities and details of local crime rates; in repairing the server the nearest spares supplier can be identified and the replacement part purchased there and then; and with trade shows, the video of a stand or product is enhanced with background information, case studies, product specifications, availability and costs.

Further Thought

We are talking about delivering these services over the top (OTTP) of the mobile networks. Where the future possibilities get really exciting are when these services are delivered as an integral part of an intelligent, mobile network.

The network knows a lot about the customer and hence it can prioritise and contextualise the experience. Frightening? Too Big Brother? Or the best way to filter information when we are exposed to ‘way too much’ content and have less and less time to sift through it and consume what we select?

Conclusion

When video arrived on the web, it changed things. Mobile video has arrived in the form of smartphone apps that are “detached” from the “web.” While we’ve listed just a few examples (above), our belief is that mobile video will have a far greater impact on communications than web video. The world becomes flatter and flatter by the day.

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