Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Social Isolation - Physically present but mentally absent

The best laid schemes of mice and men often go astray
– Robert Burns

I sat down the other day reminiscing of a class during my MBA days. The Professor gave an analogy comparing the IT industry to the plumbing industry. He talked about a time when people became more absorbed in the details of the fitting and pipes, but forgot about the water. It made me think of how the world has built up network infrastructure for information without actually stopping to think of how much of the data that traverses it is actually relevant. The arrival of new gadgets and gizmos that utilize both the infrastructure of the wired and the wireless world are giving way to a new social isolation phenomenon sweeping the planet; Physically present, but mentally absent. Anywhere I go these days, in the city, at airports, restaurants, and malls, people are either peering into a mobile device or its hugging their ears. Even among groups of people there’s always one or more distracted by a device. As I pondered for a bit, Clint Eastwood’s “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” came to mind.

The Good: One of the areas that availability of the network infrastructure is really making a difference is in the area of education. You can now have virtual class rooms half way across the world where students from distant countries join in via an interactive video conferencing classroom. An individual student or a classroom full of them can interact with the professor and other students who are hundreds of miles away as if every one of them were physically in the same room. Information delivered through this technology has made distance ignorable, while creating a highly productive educational session. The existence of the network infrastructure has also helped other industries such as healthcare, pharmaceuticals and many others.

The Bad: These days most everyone has a cell phone, and a personal laptop computer. I have personally seen instances when people are replying to text messages, talking on their phones and looking into their laptops while driving in vehicles at highway speeds. Does this “instant-gratification” world we now live in really make us that much more productive? I believe that the existence of these technologies have cut down the intrinsic delay that used to allow people to think over a query and respond in an astute manner. The perceived expectation of responses in real time has really cut down on the quality of the interaction between people. We have to question ourselves if technology has really increased productivity or caused more disruption? It is sad to note that the very same people who benefit from the education at virtual classrooms are also affected by the high tech distraction of texting and email while the class is in session.

The Ugly: One recent afternoon, as I came to the end of the running trail at a local park, I happened to notice a family setup on a bench near the tot-lot. The father was working on his portable computer with one child by his side playing a portable videogame. The mother was talking on a cell phone while minding the other child that played on the swing set. Each to their own space; Is social isolation the future we are building for our kids? The next generation of kids are going to be mere “Talking Heads”.

Conclusion: There are significant benefits and some bad side effects to society from technology. It is up to the people to control how technology will not become a disruption in their lives. Etiquette coach Colette Swan says that, "We are becoming an internalized society. We are living in our laptops, our cell phones, and in our texting". See Michael Parekh's blog Gadget Etiquette in meetings. Dan Saffer of Adaptive path coined the phrase topless, where companies and universities are forcing meeting or classroom participants to ditch laptops and phones. Some of the participants swear that their productivity has increased by leaving behind their electronic gadgets to such meetings. I am sure some other die hard tech fans will argue that Text messaging, emails and cell phones have not distracted the prioritization of activities.

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