Sunday, 25 November 2012

Each smart phone, iPad and laptop is a roving entry and exit point to a vast network. How does this fact change society?

The new normal: the smart device electronic campfire.

Smart portable Information Age techniques are changing how we think and interact with each other.

by Tom Thorne

The techniques of the Information Age are personal and portable. Users can rove anywhere, anytime and be in touch with the world. No time in human history has provided such a series of techniques devoted to constant always on personal communication.

Now many young people do not have a hard wired telephone connection. They use cell or smart phones as their primary and often their only telephone. Twenty somethings see this as perfectly normal. Analogue telephone systems are largely unknown to them.

Roving with a smart phone really means you have a series of sophisticated computer apps or programs at your finger tips where ever you are. Cellular telephone service, email, web searches and texting are always available.

So what else is new you say?  Well if the new normal is roving everywhere with a small computer in your hand or pocket then I say that is a profound change for society. These techniques are possibly changing our cognition and how we view our contemporary social environment.

The first observable change I see is how smart phone users interact with real humans. If the phone indicates a text or call is coming in that trumps talking to a real human. Real humans can be put on a type of limbo hold while the smart phone user deals with a text message, Tweet or a call.

Jobs are now 24/7. Bosses think nothing of emailing and texting employees outside of  9-5 business hours. If a smart phone user is "unavailable" then the person trying to contact them is put out. Therefore many smart phone users are always available to friends, family and especially their bosses. 

If a boss contacts you then it is important today to respond on your time. Work is also now portable and 24/7. Many more hours of work are chocked up this way. Personal time is depleted by constant communication. Many companies provide smart phones for this very purpose.

Then there is the attention span issue. I know twenty somethings who work on their computer, talk to humans and answer their smart phones all at the same time. They multitask and life is a series of Tweets, texts, real humans and work. They are never fully focused on any moment because any part of their communications network can interrupt their current activity. They even eat with their smart phone on.

As I said in a earlier piece this creates mini-celebrity. The multi-tasker is at the centre of all this attention and therefore doles out time dollops as needed to the smart phone and the real humans that are sharing that moment. There is a lot of being placed on hold in such a lifestyle. To complete a task means going through a series of interruptions that interlope constantly in real time. 

Users talk to humans, ring, answer phone, text a reply, then go back to real human conversation, look up a movie time on the internet that came from the email and then maybe finish the real human conversation if the attention span hasn't fallen victim to the process.

This situation I believe destroys linear continuity of the old pre smart phone world. It replaces it with a multitasked outcome which by its nature have a different goal or no goal at all. No longer is there a beginning, middle and an end. It is replaced by mini and even micro events that in some cases have a beginning and may have a middle waiting for an answer in cyberspace set between two other messages.  The linear world of old with a beginning middle and end is a fleeting experience. 

The nature of electronic communications technique is the fragmentation of life as we know it. If you can be found anywhere anytime 24/7 then you get a bit here and a bit there and only infrequently does it all come together. Fragmented input and output from constant information bombardment destroys communication continuity.

Life once knew the joy of a story that was told without interruption and these stories all had a linear beginnings, middles and ends. Now we live with dollops of data and information that infrequently never tell a full story or contain any substance. 

Human interaction is now what can be packaged in 140 text characters or spelled out with two thumbs in a semi literate text message such as "2day u hav 2 lern txting". It's a time where the linear world of print, film and television is being replaced by the multitask world of 24/7 highly personal communication. It is the cult of the mini-celebrity.

Already we are seeing movies where the plots cannot be advanced without the use of smart devices. The technology is integrated already into popular culture. Characters in films are seen as smart users of these smart techniques. Popular culture reflects our times and reinforces the smart 24/7 world as normal.

Imagine the baby born in 2012. That child will grow up completely in a smart environment and that smart environment will be the new normal. How does this level of technique interface with our culture first and perhaps even our evolution as a high technology species?  That remains the open question. What are the effects of this world we have created?  In my view it is a nanosecond world where attention spans last about as long as a nanosecond. Remember, techniques define how human culture develops.

© Copyright 2012, Tom Thorne, All Rights Reserved.


  1. Vernor Vinge wrote about the impact that will be wrought upon humanity by the exponentially accelerating rate of technological progress. He termed it "The Singularity" because if charted on a graph where the time axis is given a scale that makes sense from the perspective of individual human experience, he is talking about the point where the exponential curve becomes, for all intents and purposes, essentially vertical i.e. where the rate of change is so great that it's virtually unmeasurable and climbs rapidly toward infinity or at least toward some point far beyond our wildest imaginings. At that point where the rate-of-progress curve climbs out of sight over (say) a couple of years, all our previous assumptions about how human society works, about how humans live their lives, becomes null and void.

    I would argue that the sudden spread of the internet during the nineties and the second, *mobile* digital revolution of the past decade, represent the leading edge of this singularity. Because few people could have imagined at the beginning of each of those revolutions just how deeply it would change their notions of what normality is.

  2. My point is that compounding dollops of information do not necessarily represent progress. I make the distinction between data becoming information and if really fortunate having enough cohesion to become knowledge. Dollops of data do not necessarily lead to this knowledge path. They may be more pure form without substance where the bandwidths are filled with the remnants of Tweets and strings of zero and one digitally encoded drivel. Tom Thorne