Elizabeth's secondhand bookstore in Pitt Street Sydney

Anti-social personal device bubbles

By Oliver Damian

On my way to the gym today, I sat next to a young lady in the train. She was playing Candy Crush on her iPhone 6 while simultaneously watching an episode of Arrow on her iPad Mini. How she was able to do this and still enjoy both, I do not know. I looked at the rest of the passengers in the carriage. If they were not talking on the phone, they were looking at their devices, or at the very least had their ear phones on. I felt a tad anachronistic reading a dead tree book in my hand. I was compelled to whip out my HTC One just to blend in. I was able to resist. This time.

Like me, if you are an avid observer of human nature and old enough to have used a typewriter, carbon paper and snopake — then if you take a pause, you would realise that this is a relatively recent phenomenon. After all, it was not that long ago when taking out your mobile phone and talking amidst people was a big no-no. Now, it's de rigueur. So much so that if you really pay close attention, you could hear the juiciest and most confidential matters discussed in the most public of places.

This me-and-my-device bubble in social settings has become so prevalent. So much so that an increasing number of us are considering it an anti-social epidemic. I've been seeing a lot of commentary on photos showing: dinner tables where everyone is glued to their devices instead of engaging with each other; concerts and other public events where a sea of screens are recording what's happening (arguably, instead of these people being fully present to enjoy the moment); and public transport and other waiting places where again people are glued to their devices. Ironically, these photos and commentary are shared in Instagram and Facebook — the very same social media network the posters are bagging.

Have we really unleashed an anti-social epidemic? — or is it just a few people's overreaction to a pervasive technological disruption in how we connect with each other? It might help to look back at a similar event in history. When writing was invented some people expressed concern that this would ruin our memory. After all before writing, the tribe's stories and knowledge had to be committed to memory (usually by being recited or sang in verse as memory aid) and passed on orally. And yes, it was true that writing did somehow diminish our ability to memorise songs and epics. However, it also enabled us to collect, preserve, and pass on a lot more of our collective knowledge. More importantly, the invention of writing enabled us to be more introspective. Without writing, it would have been close to impossible to accurately recollect what we thought, felt and believed ten years ago. Even if we were able to remember, our recollection is very likely to be coloured and tarnished by the intervening years, the state of our mind and emotions at the time of recollection. However, if we wrote about it contemporaneous to the event, our written record would be a lot closer to the truth as we experienced it back then. That is why in litigation more weight is given to documents created contemporaneous to the relevant time over documents created after the fact.

With our thoughts taken out of our heads and imprinted in durable form: we can dissect, analyse, reflect, and ruminate on them. We can share them to others who can give us feedback and add their own insights to the mix. A virtuous cycle of refining and evolving in our thinking is engaged. Writing enabled us to stand on the shoulders of giants. So in retrospect the disruptive technology of writing wasn't that bad after all. A slightly diminished oral memory was an alright price to pay for the benefits the technology of writing brought.

Applying this to the me and my device bubble: although it may make many of us detach away from our immediate social circles or surroundings, it can connect us to people and things we want to connect with. My train example at the beginning was kind of a red herring. The young lady sitting beside me did not know me from a bar of soap. Of course, it was lot a better for her to engage with her Candy Crush and Arrow double header. Same for the other people in the carriage. They were texting people important to them. They were listening to music they like. They were surfing websites they wanted to surf, etc. Prior to these devices, the same people would have been reading dead tree books, newspapers or simply staring out the window. This is Sydney after all. Unlike some places in Europe and elsewhere, I found that it is not a Sydney-thing to meet new people in public transport. I tried it a few times in the past, they did not end well.

What these new social media networks accessed with our devices enable us to do is to transcend our immediate surroundings and circumstances to seek other people who we can have different affiliations with based on shared interests rather than blood, geography, race belief or other luck of the draw circumstances. In the past we were kind of stuck if we did not share any common interests with our family, school friends, church or people in our town. If everyone around you wanted to talk about real estate, kitchen renovations and X Factor but what you wanted to talk about was Hayekian economics, Anti-fragility and the Third Eye, you were kinda stuck. Unless you move out to communes or hubs where people interested in these live, or by extreme luck a stranger who happen to share the same interests moved into town. Now, with the Internet, social media networks and these devices you carry with you, you can actively seek these people out. They could be on the other side of the world, it doesn't matter. They could also be two blocks away but you just didn't know. The connection need not be limited to virtual. I just came back from London where there seems to have been a Cambrian explosion of Meetup groups. I found multiple groups in the topics I was interested in, and then some. Groups of people meeting in the flesh enabled by social media networks and devices. In a sense it doesn't have to be confined to me and my device bubble, it could also be we in our bubble of interest.

Which brings us to another set of lens through which we can look at this: substitutes vs complements. Bad for you if you are what is being substituted by new technology. Good for you if you are complemented rather than substituted. Usually, what is substituted by something better diminishes. What is complemented by better things usually thrives.

For example, the self-service point-of-sale kiosks introduced by supermarkets are technological substitutes for the humans who used to do the scanning and bagging for you. As people come to accept, get used to, or may be even prefer these kiosks, we might see more of these and less of the check-out chicks and chicos. That is unless other retailers adopt the innovative Apple store model where the point-of-sale iPads complements the Apple store people instead of substituting them. The innovation lies in making the point-of-sale come to you, instead of you,the customer, queueing up to access the point-of-sale. Simply brilliant. Prior to the Apple Store model, it was really kinda rude for you the customer having to line up and wait a long time for the privilege of handing over your money to the retailer. The Apple Store model is so successful that I believe they are hiring more walking point-of-sale people rather than less. And these people appears to me to be happy and thriving.

So are the new technological social networks accessed by our devices substitutes or complements to actual human contact. To me they can only ever be complements. There is simply no substitute for face-to-face and pressing skin. That is why despite the growth in tele and video-conferencing, key personnel of multinationals still keep on accummulating frequent flyer miles.

But boy are they such good complements. In my case, for people I personally know, these social networks are an effective and efficient way to keep in touch. A light touch keep-in-touch. By glancing at the status updates feeding my wall, tweets and instagram posts, I pretty much know what my friends are up to or at least, what they are up to they consider worth sharing. So that next time we meet in person, instead of asking: so what have you been up to?, I could ask hey, I saw your Instagram SF posts, did you like the clam chowder at Boudins?.

For people I don't personally know but whose ideas, taste and experience I value or find intriguing, I follow them in social media to save a lot of time. Because they are subject matter experts in their fields or they've devoted their entire life to this one thing, it is very likely that they've already separated the wheat from chaff in what they share. Also if they write about their life, mistakes, failures as well as the sucesses they've made then what they share feeds into my collection of heuristics so that I hopefully could avoid making the same mistakes or do similar right things. The 21st century way of learning from our elders, if you like. Only this time, it scales.

As you can see, I'm a bit of an optimist when it comes to social media and these devices that have become so much a part of our lives. Having said this, I still however feel that the am-I-a-Victor-Frankenstein-who-created-a-monster-? Self questioning is a healthy skepticism that is good to have for people who create, sell, use and propagate new technologies. For things that really matter, healthy pre-caution can only be good.