Connected by technology – closer to each other than ever?

I was on a train heading into London last week and had an experience which got me thinking about a fairly broad subject: The impact of technology on the way we behave around each other.

To be clear I was not actually sitting there on a train trying to look deeper into furthering human behaviour. Rather I had found myself forced to make a tough decision. My phone was not charged properly and I had to switch it off to save battery.

The first few seconds are the most unnerving. Looking around me every single face is looking down and everyone occupied with something Electronic.  People were either watching videos, fervently typing a message, or some were talking on the phone. A sea of headphones served to either create a personal space or cut people off from each other, depending on your perspective. In truth I felt a bit like the only person in the carriage who didn’t fall under the hypnotist’s spell at a show.

If you have been in this situation you will appreciate the loneliness of being pretty much the only person in the whole carriage who isn’t staring into a screen. I say ‘pretty much’ as there are still a few newspaper readers dotted around. These people were old school and newspapers don’t need charging. Bravo to them, but I didn’t have a paper.

I was at secondary school in mid to late 90’s, mobile phones were becoming the norm for pretty much everyone by then. The way we have enhanced these devices over those years since with unique apps and functions to suit our needs is testament to their integration into our lives as a whole. Despite being around both before and throughout this time I could hardly conceive what that train would have been like without the smart phones.

The point here is not to moan about smartphones, since I am sure I would have been on mine during this particular journey given the chance. Instead I am observing that there are both pro’s and con’s in the mass adoption of any new technology. In this case, the fact that people have devices in such numbers, proves that the more we adopt that technology in our everyday lives, we have to expect there will be an impact on human interactions.

I am not referring to the other passengers on the train as anti social in any way, as I am sure they are not. But they were hardly interacting with anyone in their immediate space, which is a fairly big shift from how society behaved even 20 years ago. I would like to think that we would choose a real interaction over a digital one but basing my answer on the amount of direct conversation I witnessed on that journey, I would say – we wouldn’t.

We are able to communicate with so many more people individually across social media than generations before us and I am sure most people feel they have great moments of connection with those they contact. Social Media and digital evolution has worked wonders for our ability to communicate, make no mistake about that. We can make our friend on the other side of the world’s phone ring in just a few seconds with one tap of an App button, but can you tell me what colour hair the person opposite you on the train this morning had?

A question this prompts in my mind is whether our expanding digital connections are contracting our real-world ones? Taking that further is there an opportunity (or even responsibility) for technology to promote better connections with those we encounter in our immediate vicinity?

Products like the Waverley Labs – Pilot translator earbuds (and others inc. Google headed to market) are a perfect example of how this can be done well and with benefit for all. For those not aware of the earbuds, they translate languages as they are spoken to the wearer. Not only is this useful to a single person listening to what is being said to them; Swapping one earbud with a foreign language speaker allows barriers to be broken in seconds that no phrase book could hope to equal.

Consumers are going mad to get their hands on this product too, so it looks like we can look forward to experiencing it with our own ears really soon (See a Waverley Press Release here for an update on the response to their crowd funding round). I am already searching flights to Tibet in another tab as I type this…

I hope to see a future where we continue to emphasise the development of technology that enhances our ability to interact both digitally and in person. Sure you can throw in a few talking robots for good measure, but just find a way to keep the humanity in there as well. In the meantime I will be the guy trying to spark up real conversations on a train heading to and from London.