Strategist, Speaker, Designer, Instigator

Conversing with ghosts [post 45/100]

Maybe I’m a little old-fashioned sometimes. A friend who’s got teenage daughters tells me that these days it’s considered ok (by some) to carry on a conversation while fiddling with one’s mobile. This still is definitely not ok in my circles, and no matter how much I apologise I always feel terrible when something comes up that I feel I have to take care of.

This friend suggested I might write a bit of something about how, since society seems to be changing to accept one kind of new technology-induced behaviour, we might also come to accept looking at one’s Apple Watch as something other than the accepted looking-at-watch body language of “You’re boring me”/“I’ve got somewhere better to be.”

But as soon as I wrote the first paragraph of this post, I found myself questioning it. Why is it that I feel like I have to take care of something that comes up on my mobile while I’m with someone else? Especially if it’s not even a call?

I was thinking about this the other day. We used to have jobs that we did during the day, and then in the evening we went home to our families. This was the prevailing way of life, more or less, since we were hunter-gatherers. Suddenly (in anthropological terms) we have jobs that we carry with us in our pockets or our bags 24/7. I used to leave my laptop at the office when I didn’t want to work in the evenings – now I’d have to leave my mobile at home too. Which I could, sure, but I don’t want to. It would make me nervous.

And it’s not just work that we feel compelled to reply to right away – it’s personal stuff too. As recently as 10 years ago, a non-emergency call could wait 24 hours to be returned. Now someone messages me a random photo (not even of them!) on Facebook and I’m looking at it within minutes.

I wonder about these changes. One of the ways that we humans adapt to new things is by mashing them up to resemble older things that we’re more used to. Venkat Rao wrote an excellent piece about our tendency to subsume the technologically miraculous into the mundane. This tendency is having some worrying effects. We’re treating (digital) socialising like it’s our job. Nobody is paying us to do this stuff – not in money anyway – and yet we spend vast swaths of our time occupied with it. It may have begun as entertainment, but it’s looking less and less like it as we work harder and harder to get our Likes/replies/numbers up and keep them there. Sound familiar?

This is the grist in the mill of the attention industry we all (myself included) talk about so incessantly. We are working for someone, it turns out, when we do these things. Someone is making money – it’s just not us.

And what about all the new technologies we’re developing to self-monitor our health? Anyone who’s tried googling their flu symptoms and wound up convinced they’ve got four kinds of cancer will tell you that we are, in general, not particularly good at thinking objectively about health-related matters. And yet I hear fellow designers talking about smartphone extensions that will take daily blood samples and… now I’m veering wildly off topic. Let’s save digitally-assisted hypochondria for another day.

So what is it about the smartphone-social-multitasking thing that bothers me so much? It’s that if I’m looking at the phone I’m not really present for the conversation. We know that at least 80% of the meaning of any conversation does not come from the words spoken, but rather from more subtle cues like body language, eye contact, tone of voice, even pheromones. When we are looking elsewhere, we are robbing ourselves of the ability to pick up on those signals. We de facto cannot be fully participating. It’s more than a social convention, or good or bad manners; it’s a functional issue.

Of course it does also signal that there is something else I’d rather be doing, or at least something else that’s equally important as sitting there talking to whoever I happen to be in the room with, and that devalues the whole idea of that person having taken the time to come out of the house or office to sit with me. If I’m not going to give you my full attention then we might as well be chatting over Skype or Facebook or WhatsApp or whatever. You might as well be talking to a ghost.

Looking at my smartphone is really no different from someone looking at their watch when I’m talking to them – in fact, since I don’t wear a watch, it often serves exactly the same purpose. And this is my thing with the Apple Watch, and why I kind of hope (in its current state atleast) that it will never be 100% ok: it conveys the message that I’ve constantly got something better to do. And I wonder what it says about us that it’s becoming ok for us to always have something better to do than what we’re doing, who we’re with, right now.