April 3, 2011

Alone Alone

Filed under: Relationships, Software Blog — marcstober @ 4:12 pm

There’s a hypothesis that seems to be getting a lot of discussion, most notably in the book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (full disclosure: I haven’t read the book), that we need to put down our digital devices so we can properly be together together for face-to-face encounters.

I should agree agree with this. I’ve gotten angry at my spouse for seeming consumed with her iPhone; and been annoyed at “friends” who are quick with the online comment but never find time to get together.

But something bothered me. It would be nice to think that putting down the devices would result in substantial I-thou encounters. But I’m afraid it doesn’t really address the way people turn to devices when they feel alone alone.

The parent who spends all day with young children and never has an adult conversation feels alone alone.

The worker who looks all day at a screen of impersonal words and numbers can feel alone alone.

The husband waiting in the hospital for his wife to recover with no other family or friends around is alone alone.

The person who attends a community function where lots of people know each other but they don’t know anyone can be alone alone.

I’m not sure how to help in these situations but I wouldn’t demonize the technology.

First, I’m not sure smartphones have made things worse. Breakfast used to involve my dad completely hidden behind a newspaper. Businesspeople had a secretary to take messages, but if the phone rang at dinner, you had to answer it; and it was probably a telemarketer. Today we have the opportunity to talk about putting down our phones because we know our news and messages will wait until we choose to pick them up.

As a technology professional I’m somewhat biased in favor of technology, but the professional part is about knowing technology is not a magic bullet and how to apply it in a way that will do good.

I think the potential of digital networks to connect us is awesome, including the fact that often this communication actually enables face to face encounters: from planning, to arranging travel, to being able to have an in person experience without losing touch with home. And, I think there is still an opportunity to design gadgets would do an even better job nudging us to use them efficiently and then turn them off.