Evolution or devolution?

A colleague of mine recently posted a link to ’23 Pictures That Prove Society Is Doomed’ on a well known social media site. It is a collection of amusing photos and captions that try to make the point that society must be doomed if we all feel the need to spend every waking moment with a phone in our hands. The below is one such image, that bore the introduction “This adorable picture of star-crossed lovers meeting for the first time”:

2. This adorable picture of star-crossed lovers meeting for the first time

From http://www.buzzfeed.com Via: empoweredteensandparents.com

At face value this page is quite amusing and many might find it “sad”, but I in fact find it a rather cynical and cheap attempt at a laugh that almost entirely misses the point. I’ll tell you why.

With all of these amusing little ‘insights’ into society, the pictures are a collection of amusing captions added to images that are taken completely out of context. At first they are amusing but soon it becomes quite obvious that the images have little to do with the situation the caption suggests. However, I can’t use this as a practical reason to criticise as the pictures are just demonstrations of situations we have all seen in real life. I have been present at a lunch of friends and suddenly looked up at a moment of silence to see they were all on their phones.

My main problem with this is the assumption that these situations are a negative thing. To explore this point further it is necesary to understand what these pictures actually show, rather than take it as read that the people are just being ‘anti-social’.

Like language, our behaviour evolves with time to suit the world we occupy. In the 1970s the young generation became the generation who sat around listening to the music of the day on the radio, enjoying the raucous behaviour of outrageous DJs and generally ‘rebelling’ against their parents who would rather they sat downstairs and have polite conversation. Similarly when I grew up the age of the games console had arrived and young teenagers would sit in their bedrooms playing Sonic the Hedgehog and Super Mario. No doubt in those situations their parents were talking about how society was doomed. In the late 90s and early 2000s SMS took the mantle and this was the start of people staring at their phones. In the film ‘Clueless’ Alicia Silverstone’s character is seen having a conversation on her mobile with her best friend and as she comes around the corner her friend is there. Without skipping a beat they hangup and continue their conversation. Some would say that this demonstration of not being able to go a single second without talking to a friend was a sad state of affairs, but actually it is the next stage in the evolution of human interaction. At no time in history, prior to this era, has it been possible for us to interact directly with each other unless we were in the presence of each other. Mobile phones changed this and opened up the opportunity for social interaction to extend to an almost unlimited stage.

So how does this relate to the situations depicted in the amusing images on buzzfeed? To me it is a demonstration of the next stage of social interactivity evolution. We now use so many more ways to interact with each other than we have ever done before. Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn, YouTube, Skype, SMS, Email, Instant Messaging, the list goes on. And all of these are usable on a mobile device. We are in a time poor world where our appetite to consume media, share it and interact with our colleagues and friends is higher than ever, with more ways to do this than before as well. More so, we have the ability to do this seemingly whenever and wherever we choose to, as our world has become mobile.

I am not saying that staring at a phone should replace the need for conversation, far from it. But what is happening, in my experience at least, is that the art of conversation is changing. It is no longer 100% about verbal exchange, the conversation is now multi-medium and continues across social media, instant messaging and verbally. One conversation can continue over the course of hours, as a connected set of short interactions fitting around other things, rather than a short face to face conversation that takes place as a single stream. The result of this is that our habits are changing when we are together. We are now in an age where it is acceptable (most of the time) to check the news, or social media, in between bites of conversation, rather than continually being 100% engaged in one conversational stream.

Is this the end of civilized society and the art of conversation as we know it? No, I don’t believe so. It is the start of the next phase in social evolution. We have come a long way since we sat around fires exchanging stories and our world is less and less reliant on tactile interaction as the core way to maintain communication and relationships. People have long lasting and deep friendships with people they have never actually met, which have more meaning that those they have with people they see all the time. Business are beginning to embrace a model where their workers don’t even work in an office and instead are a network of resources who communicate through the digital ether.

It is a difficult transition for many of us to make, as we move toward a world that is more and more like a sci-fi movie and less like a traditional social gathering. We are the generation that spans the gap between a world where mobile phones, CDs and computers were rare and few and a world where every person has a wristwatch the carries every detail about them around as a digital profile. Being glued to your phone…devolution or evolution? Or maybe it is a glimpse into the future that is just around the corner?

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