Connected but increasingly alone

315 160 Justin Jenk

We have become ubiquitously connected. The march of technology is having many benefits in terms of easiness and choice; yet despite these economic effects those on individual behaviour and society may not be so positive. Technology risks taking over our lives in unintended ways. Our well-being is also being affected, with implications to how we interact socially and to society. Perhaps the benefits and costs are not so beneficial.

Mobile and data penetration has increased to over 85% for the world’s population; in just 20 years! In some countries and communities the figure is close to 100%.

To put this development into perspective, electricity is only accessible to 80% of the world’s population; that level of penetration took over 100 years to achieve. At a more granular level, the average American now spends over 17 hours a day connected – via mobile, tablet or computer screen, up from 14.5 hours in 2012. Proponents of change would point to the benefits as being enhanced information, increased choice, greater productivity and reduced prices. Finally more sociability through the venues of social media. There is no doubt as to the economic benefits; but what of the costs?

Despite these benefits the Internet, technology and this digital infusion is creating risks – that few have understood and becoming pervasive, especially amongst younger generations.

Psychologists point out that smartphones are changing the way we act, think, reason and value matters. At a simple level, behaviors that five years ago were generally considered unacceptable or odd are now common place. In survey after survey, respondents reveal that they regularly check messages of text during board and business meetings, at mealtimes, in cinemas even at funerals. We have become obsessive.

As one person put it: “we are removing ourselves into our phones”. Our connected psychosis in numbers:

  • 60%  of respondents – check their handsets every hour
  • 54%  – check their handsets in bed
  • 50%  – use their phones while driving
  • 40%  – use their phones whole they are in the toilet
  • 30%  – check their handset during meals
  • 12% – use their phone in the shower
  • 10% – use their phones during sex! With 1/5 checking in afterwards!
  • 9% -check during religious services, even funerals.

We are increasingly addicted to the internet and our smartphones: just as the smoker and junkie is.

For 75% of owners, their handset is never more than 5 feet way from their person. Smart phones have become an extension of ourselves, our best friend even soul-mate. “Extreme tech anxiety” is experienced by a large majority of users. 73% of respondents admitted to feelings of “panic attack” when faced with the prospect of losing their phones. Women are more likely to have “phone separate attacks” than men. Disconnection creates a senses of separation, even loss; similar to losing a loved one to death. The medical profession is classifying these symptoms as “nomo-phobia: (No Mobile phobia).

The perverse dynamic is that while the Internet, and the rise of the smartphone, has made it easier to receive and send information, facilitating communications it seems to be driving us into more selfish, isolated behaviours.  Online is becoming a virtual proxy for companionship. It requires none of the investments nor demands of friendship.

The advance of the Internet is hastening our retreat from reality. It reveals our own lack of confidence – as individuals and hence as responsible members of society. We fear being alone, unacknowledged and are frightened by intimacy.

Texts, emails and posts allow us to present the self as we want it to be. “I text therefore I am”. On-screen we get the chance to edit, delete, and retouch that voice, flesh and body. ‘Not too much but not too little’. Not a lie but an improvement.

Human relations are demanding, rich in emotion and content; yet messy by their very nature. Technology is allowing individuals to clean up these (supposedly weak) impressions that characterise our individuality) and compress them into the micro-decisions of judgment. What Malcolm Gladwell refers to as “micro-splicing”.  In the process we are sacrificing conversation for connection. Smartphones (and the underlying technology and practices) are allowing us to connect to isolation.

Behavioral specialists claim that a fundamental development skill is one’s ability to communicate. Studies have shown that many would prefer to connect rather than communicate; we would rather text than talk. We learn empathy from the real time, give-and- take, rhythms of a live dialogue. To lose the art of conversation is to lose an ability to interact, learn and reflect.

The Internet removes that real time messiness and fear of failure.

The smartphone promises us 3 things that are making us arrogant, insensitive, insecure and more isolationist. The 3-escapes are:

1. To place our attention and time where We want it to be, regardless of others, context and convention.

2. An audience, so that we will always be heard.

3. That we will never be alone.

Just as communication skills are a fundamental to our mental health and social well-being, so is time for reflection. Solitude is essential for a balanced mental perspective. We, as individuals and society, are freely abandoning this source of rejuvenation and strength – just as we are with quality diets; fresh air and clean water. We risk losing the capacity for reflection. 24/7/365 access screams “transmit”, rather than receive, listen and reflect. To lose these skills of communication and reflection is to abandon ourselves; making us less human in terms of individuals and society.

The cost of this virtual fantasy existence is that in the real world interactions are becoming limited and stunted.  Texting and social media are excellent for discrete and short information – not learning and understanding. There is much discussion whether too much screen time has an adverse effect on our moods. Some researches claim that too much Facebook exposure makes one depressed, according to the ‘Economist’. People would rather surf the net rather than cruise the bar. The advent of technology is seeing the rise of smart or social robots, especially to care for the incapacitated and elderly. These intelligent machines mimic human conversation. They can act as a companion for the elderly, many of whom find they alone, yet crave communications. These social robots are better adapted and infinite patience to deal with the memory deficient conversations of the elderly.

In shirt what are other persopectives that kust be considerd?

  • A commercial perspective is dominated by the economic benefits of connection are mind-boggling. Everyone with a smartphone is now a potential consumer, with 24/7/365 access. The economics are compelling. The Internet based B2C trade is worth USD 1.5 trillion and continues its growth rate in the high teens. This year (2014) online sales matched instore ones. This dynamic presents enormous value-adding opportunities that many established companies and star-ups are racing to exploit.
  • For a state., conerend with aggregate and macro-c0ntrol, the dreams of “A Brave New World” and “1984” are materializing in 2014. If it can be measured, it can be controlled and monitored. Who says that Big Brother doesn’t know better than you and me?
  • From a social perspective – the implications of easiness/isolation are far from clear. Connectivity is placing increasing pressures on individuals, our interactions as well as the farbirc, structures and workings of society and healkth of uits memebrs as an increasing number of studies ad statistics reveal. The concern is that there does not seem to be a ‘steady hand on the wheel’.

Advances in technology will always be with us. In the past we have learned to adapt and absorb the benefits while reducing the costs of such change. However the speed, ubiquitous and uncontrolled nature of developments makes it difficult to remedy some the excesses and unintended consequences of a permanently connected world.

To take analogy; by raising walls along a flooding river doesn’t solve the problem – just moves it downstream for a period.

Choice starts with the individual. Speak rather than send. Listen rather than transmit; answer after thinking. Create those sacred moments and zones of silence – in our lives, homes offices and activities. Have the courage and good sense to unplug, even for a moment. Get back in balance.

Make the smartphone your tool, not your master.

Feel free to read my other entries here in Raktas.ee or my blog “Mobile – connected yet exposed” at justinjenk.com or my posts at justinjenk.se

©justinjenk

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Justin Jenk is business professional with a successful career as a manager, advisor, investor and board member. He is a graduate of Oxford and Harvard. Justin can be found at justinjenk.com or justinjenk.se