Technology – the great connector or disconnector?

Keeping good company conversation, self-development, companionship

Is technology enhancing connectedness, or causing isolation? Could it be dismantling our communities and interpersonal relationships?

Social media and technology makes us more connected, more easily. We can have a video-call with anyone, anywhere in the world, at any time – for free. We can open Facebook on the run and see what any of our friends are up to.  We can see updates on their jobs, travels, family and friends. WhatsApp and messaging apps allows us to text-chat simply, with almost anybody in the world, share anything, regardless of where they are or what time it is.

More broadly, there are meet-up apps which help you find similar interest groups – gardening or music appreciation for example. And there are endless interest-specific chat rooms in which you can ‘virtually’ mingle and communicate with an unlimited number of like-minded people. All of this is for free, and at our fingertips 24/7.

So, where’s the problem?

Communicating in real life

With all this opportunity to communicate, why should we be lonely? Yet loneliness and isolation is on the rise – certainly with in the western world.   And it’s the ‘West’ who are the creators and biggest adopters of all this technological change.

The downside to social media is that for many reasons, it isn’t perfect.  But it has very quickly become the new norm. Social media might increase the volume of social interaction, but reduces quality of interaction. We all have only so many hours in a day, we all have only so much energy to socialise and meet people. Maybe if you’re Facebooking from the comfort of your sofa, or texting your friends all day from the office then you might not bother to go and meet any of them at the end of the day.

Online communication has become so ubiquitous that there has been a phrase coined to denote an “In Real Life” (IRL) event. Before, all events were IRL, but now, it needs to be noted in conversation if something’s IRL – otherwise maybe the assumption is that it’s not IRL…

As the youth of today grow up, maybe eventually all communication will be done via a technical interface, and very rarely IRL. Maybe one day a school child might be sitting in their room, and share a virtual classroom with someone in china, India, and Australia. An IRL connection might not ever happen.

We’re all going digital

It’s not just communication – more and more of life is moving online.

Dating has become mainly an online event. Single people rarely meet in a social environment these days, they now meet online, via an app. The meet via an app, text-chat via and app, then maybe speak over the phone, and if they get along, they then move it into “Real Life” – for a coffee.

Kids and gamers are spending endless hours immersed in virtual multi-player video game worlds. These larger than life virtual worlds have players logging in from all over the world, playing for hours, or days at a time. From their living room, they build friendships, rivalries, and chat and play games with other players – people they’ve never met IRL, and never likely to meet. These games are so compulsive for some that there are now addiction clinics for gamers – some are finding they can’t pull themselves away from this virtual world they’ve built.

Anything – online!

Education is the next big thing to move online. They say the traditional classroom is the only thing that hasn’t really modernised in the last 200 years. And now this is set for a big shake up as Silicon Valley has set its sights on overhauling this area.  Giving it a shot of much needed technology – as they see it.  The shift will push much of the content online. This will cause more people to get their courses and general education done independently – outside of the classroom.

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And then there’s shopping. No one would have thought 20 years ago that the High Street would be replaced.  Internet shopping was initially a niche pastime time for computer geeks. Shopping over the internet was mocked and shunned by the major retailers.  Yet e-commerce is now all-pervasive. As a result, we’re seeing more and more shops closed and High Streets left deserted as people go online to do their shopping.

You can buy literally ANYTHING in the world online now. You can get much of what you want delivered within the hour. And to do this, you don’t have to battle the inclement weather, you don’t have to worry about finding a carpark, nor worry about the queue at the checkout. But this means that again, we’re spending more time on our sofa, completing tasks of our daily life, without engaging in the fabric of our community.

Compulsive design

The tech companies are smart. They make our engagement with their products as smooth, effortless and as rewarding as possible. For Facebook, messaging apps, online shops and dating apps, it’s their mission to keep us wanting to come back. As a result, there’s a component of ‘User Experience’ design where they look to optimise and enhance the hook, the habit formation, and the reward aspects of the engagement.

The underlying goal is to create a compulsive behaviour which keeps you coming back.  Time again, for more and more. That’s why you see people check their phones every 5 minutes – maybe a new message has appeared, or there’s a notification from Facebook… The upside is that these softwares are a great experience.  The downside is that maybe we’re serving the needs of the software companies instead of  them serving us.

Virtual worlds

The world of virtual world’s is on its way… Why live in the real world, if it’s not as good as a virtual one?

Have you heard of Sim City? It was an early computer simulation game from the early 1990s. You built your own viable city, whilst trying to avoid war or catastrophes and make as much money as possible.  So a bit like a fancy Monopoly. Sim City is still around, and has progressed significantly from the last 25+ years of development.  It’s simulations and cities are now more realistic than ever.

The original Sim City

And there’s even complete “real” virtual worlds on the internet. Second Life is a 3D virtual world that was first launched in 2003. People can log in, choose an avatar (an identity: person or animal), and walk around, hang out, and engage in this virtual world, with other virtual people (who are other players somewhere else). The virtual world was initially bare, and it was up to the users to build their own world.

Thirteen years later, an entire virtual world has been pioneered and developed by its now one-million avatars. This world has everything that a ‘normal world’ might.  There’s properties big and small, houses and apartment blocks, cities and farms. Even bars, universities, hospitals and racing tracks have been built. All places where you can have a nice virtual life and meet and hang out with virtual friends.

This word is so ‘real’ that people have sold properties in the virtual word, for virtual currency.  They’ve then converted the play-money into USD currency, and have become IRL millionaires from the proceeds!

Augmented and virtual reality

Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) have been around a long time, but it’s only now getting good.  VR is:

“…a realistic and immersive simulation of a three-dimensional environment, created using interactive software and hardware, and experienced or controlled by movement of the body”

The first VR machine was a massive room-sized computer from the 1950’s.  It was infinitely expensive, too big – and rubbish.  Obviously, it never took off… However, 70 years later, with exponential technological growth and plummeting prices; incredible VR and AR is at our disposal.

Morton Heilig’s Sensorama VR

It isn’t the price or technology that is keeping VR/AR from wide adoption anymore.  Simply, no obvious user applications, experiences, softwares or purposes have yet been built into the platform. As a result, broad consumer adoption hasn’t happened. However, now that the technology is affordable and accessible to many, popular applications will soon flood the market.  And then, very soon, a whole new virtual world will open.

There’s a great potential that these virtual worlds can become so compelling that people might not want to leave. Why leave a virtual sunny beach, to come back to a drizzly winter’s day? And some say the next big boom in jobs, is to get people to build things for the virtual world. These people wouldn’t be sitting at an office desk, but instead working inside the virtual world, building things virtually. Maybe they get to come out when they’re on holidays.

Connection through technology

There’s an incredible and brave new world ahead of us.  However, if we don’t consciously manage it, technological communication and connection could gobble us up. At this stage though, technology is a massive enabler, which helps us get in touch easier and more often. So let’s celebrate what we have!  And taken advantage of it.

Yet, there are more single people, more single households and increasing loneliness and isolation

Technology – certainly at this stage – is never a true replacement for a real relationship or interaction. However, it can help and enhance opportunities and be a great substitute when done well.

The loneliness epidemic affects people of all ages, but it’s having a greater impact on the elderly of our community.  The elderly are less able, likely, or inclined to keep up with the brisk technological advancements of today’s world.

Keeping Good Company are making a conscious effort to keep communication and companionship real. We’re proudly allow-tech solution to a basic human need – communication and companionship.

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