We humans are amazingly adaptive creatures. Throughout our evolution we have managed to adapt to tumultuous shifts in our societal, religious and political landscapes. Technology has been no exception. Technological advances began to gather steam during the Industrial Revolution. Since that period we have absorbed wave after wave of scientific, medical, and engineering advances that have affected the ways in which we live. Many of those breakthroughs were positive game-changers that significantly improved the quality and quantity of our lives. Many others, over time, proved to be double-edged. Perhaps no other shift has been as seismic—or as rapid—as the ways in which we now communicate with one another. The stunning advances in digital communication, combined with the storm of Social Media, has completely transformed our personal interactions.
The ways in which we communicate, both personally and in the work environment, bare little resemblance to where we were just 20 years ago.
The Mobile Phone – Digital Communication – Phase 1
By the mid to late 90’s the hand-held mobile phone had gained significant adaption. The first iterations of the mobile device were merely telephones that could be carried in your pocket and, depending on signal—which was still a bit scattered and unreliable—allowed the user some mobility in communication. Nothing much beyond that. If you wanted to converse with someone you still had to actually make a phone call. Initially there was no caller ID and voicemail was sketchy. If your phone rang you had to answer it or spend the next hour wondering if you had missed your winning lottery ticket notification!
Communication had gone mobile but we were still conversing in the traditional sense. Most of our interpersonal decorum was still intact.
Texting – The Shift Begins
Texting (SMS messaging) was first introduced in the late 90’s. Initial adoption was sluggish due to telecom infrastructure that was not yet fully supportive. The act of texting was also fairly laborious during this early period due to keypad limitations on the mobile phones—there were no QWERTY keypads at this point. During the first year of SMS introduction the average American was sending one text per month! Those technology limitations did not persist. Technology and infrastructure improved by orders of magnitude over a relatively short period of time. 2007 was the crossover point at which the number of texts exceeded the number of phone calls. By 2015 it was estimated that the United States was generating 180 billion text messages per month. That would equate to an average of ~ 35 texts per day for every American. Persons 16 to 25 accounted for ~ 60% of that staggering number.
The Price of Convenience
Texting brought significant advantages. It greatly reduced the cost associated with long distance communication. It was now more affordable to communicate with distant friends, relatives, and colleagues. Texting provided a mode of interaction that was simple and convenient. However, as the saying goes, “all that glitters is not gold”. There was a price to be paid for that convenience. Convenience usually breeds laziness and indifference and this was no exception. If desired, we could now avoid phone calls and, instead, wait for the text message that was sure to follow. Communication via text, in many cases, became preferable to actual conversation.
The ability to communicate in an impersonal way, but still in real time, also began to erode our barriers of decorum. A trend that was to be greatly exacerbated with the explosion of Social Media.
Social Media – Downfall of Inhibition
Texting, although distant and removed, was still primarily one on one in nature. Mass expression of ideas and opinions still had no readily available outlet. Facebook, Twitter, etc. revolutionized our ability to access an audience. Over a shockingly short period of time communication went from one on one to one on many. This was nothing short of miraculous. Technology had given us limitless potential for digital connection and interaction. In the palm of our hands lay a virtual megaphone that was reliable and omnipresent. But, it also worked to expose a darker side within our nature.
The Virtual Wall
Some of our communication via text or social media is positive and uplifting. Much of it is mundane puffery. An increasingly large portion of it is a toxic brew of nastiness, sarcasm, cruelty, belligerence, and extremism. Our darker side on display. Digital communication and social media provide the ultimate protective shield. Opinion and thought can now be offhandedly cast into the ether with no fear of interpersonal blow-back. We are isolated from any hurt or misunderstanding that we may cause. If that hurt is expressed it comes back at us in digitized form and is, therefore, devoid of the human element. It is a similar phenomena as “road rage” or “aggressive driving”. We do things behind the wheel, while encased in our auto cocoon, that we would not do otherwise. We are isolated from the human impact of our actions. Such isolation has always brought out the worst in us.
Social Media and Isolation
Walk into any gathering of people (restaurant, sporting event, concert, etc.) and a common sight awaits. People—supposedly in a social environment—with heads down and attention affixed to their mobile devices. There is no surer sign of addiction than the inability to moderate a particular behavior. What was once a convenience has devolved into a need. Being “disconnected” leaves us feeling edgy and unsettled. We have grown much too fond of our own opinions and ideas and being disconnected from our ability to express ourselves has become unacceptable.
Technology has provided us with the means for real time connection to people and events from around the globe. The revolution was not gradual, it was astoundingly rapid—maybe too rapid for us to adequately prepare for. We are now more connected digitally but much more isolated individually. There is more talk but less communication. We are increasingly disconnected in the ways that bring real happiness and fulfillment. We grow profoundly less content.
Where will we be in another 20 years? A sobering question…..