I’m troubled by what we’ve created

Friday.

I think something is happening to me.

At work, during my lunch hour, I did my usual trip to the supermarket to get a sandwich. Like many, I filled the period of “dead time” by faffing about with my phone. Twitter, Facebook, the news, checking email. The usual stuff. Every now and then, for safety reasons (i.e. not getting run over when crossing the road), I have to look around.

What got me is that everyone else was doing the same. Not just fellow colleagues, but shoppers too. If you’re someone on your own then it’s almost obligatory to be staring at your phone.

Then an advert for a dating website told me last night that “1 in 4 relationships start online” and, like I do, I tried to understand those figures. Personally I don’t think that 1 in 4 are starting completely via dating websites, there’s probably also a fair chunk finding love on social networking sites too.

According to this data, many of us are starting relationships through a smartphone, tablet or laptop instead of meeting people for the first timeface-to-face.

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This disconnect with daily life is something that still bugs me. It’s something I wrote about in December and I’m guilty of plugging into the matrix a little too much too. When you’re there, when you’re checking email, tweets, texts or that social networking site – it seems to be the most important thing in the world and everything else seems to pale into insignificance. The smartphone or tablet is your screen into another world. It’s your box of information, your guide, your teacher.

Just recently this video appeared on YouTube. It’s become incredibly popular on Facebook and Twitter already even though it’s effectively telling us all to put down our devices and just look up. It’s a message we’ll all probably approve of, but looking at the popularity of the video it’s obviously something we’re not going to do overnight.

I’d recommend watching it. If nothing else, it’s incredibly well done and hits the message home.

Recently I watched a documentary about the rise and rise of Amazon. It detailed how the new online world of shopping had changed our habits and the way we buy goods. We already know that brick-and-mortar shops like HMV and Virgin Megastore had been replaced with iTunes and Google Play, but Amazon is effectively pushing out other high-street stores too. One bookshop per week is closing across Britain, and it’s in the face of increased competition and our switch to online shopping.

Linda Jones is one of many independent bookstore owners and she appeared in the BBC programme “Amazon’s Retail Revolution”. She struggled to compete, and found that people would rather just browse at home instead of driving into town, battling the parking charges and visiting several shops to get the best price. Online is simply more convenient, but it does mean that we don’t need to talk to anyone in order to make a purchase.

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Linda eventually took the hard decision to close her bookshop, which she was keeping afloat by using her own savings. It marked the end of an era for her and she was particularly sad about how our love of gadgets had changed us and the way we interact with others. She expressed her feelings in the show by saying..

We will become more insular as a society. We will sit at home, in our rooms we’ll type in what we need. We won’t talk to anybody. We won’t communicate. Our communities will become smaller. We won’t see people, and I don’t want that.

Now, at the moment, it depends where you are and what you’re doing. On a bus or train during the early morning commute? You’re going to see people glued to smartphones or, at the very least, listening to music. Lunchtimes in a city or industrial estate are also “hotspots” for the “phone zombies”. People are usually not allowed to use their phones at work, so a lunch break can be chance for them to catch up with their texts and Facebook updates.

However, there’s a definite increase happening. The phone zombies are multiplying overnight. I spotted this Florida couple last year and couldn’t understand why they were spending their entire meal fiddling with their mobile phones. Sure, filling up traditional “dead time” where you’d normally be staring out of the window (on your own on a bus or train) is one thing, but when you’re with your wife and having a meal out? That just struck me as weird.

It’s an addictive combination of “another world” to plug into and the demand for new information, no matter how frivolous it might be. Checking your Twitter feed can, for some, become more important than whatever you’re supposed to be doing right now. We’ve also got used to having instant access to pretty much everything we could ever need, anywhere. In years past you’d perhaps call someone or have an interesting chat about who starred in that movie you all watched years ago. Now, we just Google it. Who needs to actually talk to people when Google, Facebook and Twitter can answer your questions in a heartbeat?

Now, phones are one thing. You know what the answer is. I have to tell myself to do it every meal time, every weekend. Just put the bloody thing down. Stick it in the glovebox of your car and go shopping with your wife. Talk to each other instead of fiddling with the phone while she tries clothes on. Enjoy your life, not the screen.

Ohh.. I’m getting all deep and meaningful.

Seriously though, it isn’t easy. The mobile phones we have now can do so much. They can show you TV shows, keep you up to date with news and plug you into the planet in seconds. In my day job I was offered a few mobile phones. Me, a gadget fan, being offered any mobile phone under the sun? Another phone? Another number for work to get hold of me? What did I choose? Was it a BlackBerry like most others? No. I chose this…

nokiac2

This is a Nokia C2. It has a battery life of about 6 years and it’ll ring and do text messages. Not much else. I like it because if it rings, I know there’s a problem at work. If it doesn’t, I know everything is fine. No emails, no urge to check email. Just a phone that acts like a pager. I don’t find myself checking it, I don’t find myself getting drawn into any unnecessary browsing, Facebook updating or tweeting because, quite simply, it can’t do any of that.

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This, though, is just the tip of the iceberg. The smart glasses technology we’re seeing from the likes of Google will become more popular and HUD units in vehicles could see us getting pulled further into an online world where real-world emotions and feelings take a back seat and we quickly end up in some sort of strange “Demolition Man” world where we all act like Sylvester Stallone. Nobody wants that. Nobody.

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