I’ve had a recurring theme in my life the last week or so and it is pretty ironic considering much of the last week was spent at (and participating in) a social media conference: with all the social/digital devices and services we have available to us, we are remarkably antisocial.
We talk about social all the time. We have dozens of apps organised into folders (or their equivalents) which enable us to share virtually everything we experience in our lives and yet we seem to spend more time with out heads down and staring at our devices instead of actually speaking to and engaging with people around us. It took me a while to realise that a voice phone call is frequently far more effective than a text message, even with carefully chosen emoticons.
Our Chief Rabbi recently launched an initiative called The Shabbos Project which invites Jews to keep the Sabbath of 11 October completely. This means complete observance of all the rules. It appeals to me because it requires us to totally switch off for about 24 hours. No phones, TV, Internet, light switches, driving, shopping, working and just about anything we usually do day to day. It means 24 hours of family, friends and community with no artificial distractions. I’m not sure if we will do it but it appeals to me nevertheless because it would force us to really be present and fully engaged with each other. We’ll play board games instead of iPad games; play outdoors instead of watching TV and talk to each other for more than 5 minutes.
On the other hand, our digital tools enable us to share ideas, knowledge and experiences with each other really easily. I subscribe to dozens of feeds which include interviews with designers, photographers and other creative people who tend to talk about deeply meaningful interactions. Inspiration bubbles up through my RSS and activity streams and I often find myself thinking that some recently technologies like FaceTime and Hangouts bring more humanity to previously impersonal text-based interactions. All my books are on my iPad (I haven’t activated a paper book for a while now, although I believe I don’t need to recharge my paper books if I do access them again). If you are in my limited sharing groups on Facebook or Google+, that is pretty much the only way to will get to see photos of our kids.
Taking this a step further, when I think about Twitter, one thing that bugs me is the hashtag even though I use hashtags in virtually all my tweets. The hashtag is not exactly the epitome of human friendly references online and tweets with several hashtags and @-mentions look pretty much like indecipherable code if you are not already familiar with the nomenclature. On the other hand, Google recently adopted hashtags but did so with some pretty smart systems behind the scenes which extract key themes and create hashtags for posts which can be used to track memes across Google+. This allows you to publish a jargon free post and have Google+ identify the key themes and trends and create hashtags which add a system-wide semantic layer to the Web.
So what is the problem here? The question came up over lunch the other day and when my lunch companion raised the issue of many devices and little resulting and proportionate human engagement, I suggested that a solution isn’t necessarily to ditch all our gear and become the equivalent of Amish (although the idea that the Amish shun technology seems to be somewhat incorrect). Instead, we need to learn to use our technology more appropriately and when it supports our activities. What we do now is allow ourselves to become totally absorbed in our technology and what it allows us to do, at the expense of our personal interactions. A classic example is a group of people having a meal together and everyone is interacting with friends and followers in different parts of the world using their phones and yet no-one at the table is speaking to each other all that much.
We should make a point of putting our devices home when we arrive home from work so we can catch up with our partners in person and play with our kids rather than simply transporting our little digital bubble home and ignoring the people who (should) mean more to us. We should attend conferences and focus more on the speaker than what everyone in the room is tweeting about as the speaker speaks (guilty as charged). How about coming across a spectacular landscape and pausing to just take it in, instead of peering at it through our phone’s camera viewfinder and spending 20 minutes picking the perfect Instagram filter?
What we sorely need is a healthy dose of perspective blended with recognition that our 5/6 senses create richer and more valuable experiences than messages, comments on an Instagram photo and jokes in our Facebook News Feed. Our digital interactions are largely antisocial, not because they are inherently antisocial but because we are becoming progressively less engaged, socially involved and present. We are pretty self-involved these days and no-one seems to notice that much.