The Downside of Immersive Tech: An Increasingly Isolated World

Opinion

As an entrepreneur who has been involved in tech and media for over two decades, I have seen my share of disruptions (I so hate that word!) and even participated in a few.

Back in the 1990s, while we were developing some broadband technologies at Sourcecom, my first startup, we also had to develop the business case for the Telco-heads who were clueless about how to monetize this emerging “broadband thing.” They only understood how to monetize voice services.

Ahhh, the good ol’ days. At least we actually talked. As my beautiful mother says—“I call you to hear your voice, it tells me how you feel.” I do the same thing with my two beautiful adult children, even knowing it annoys them. Though they prefer to text, or use Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, etc., I still insist on talking on the phone. Besides, I have fat fingers and there are no typos on a voice call.

One look at the millennial generation and their texting behavior tells us everything we need to know—they are glued to their phone screens, oblivious to their surroundings and the harm that may be coming their way. My take is that while texting, all self-awareness is gone—as if the brain presses the pause button, which is evidenced by all those car accidents, including numerous fatalities. But it’s not just millennials. Individual cocooning now seems to be part of our collective user behavior. At least when talking, we can still have some awareness of our surroundings, since we don’t need to look at the speaker and microphone to use the phone.

Of course, fixating on display screens is nothing new. This whole phenomenon dates back to the advent of television, when we were all glued to this incredible invention like zombies. At least initially, we did it as a family. But that did not last long. Mom and Dad got one for Sis, and then for the younger siblings, followed by one in the bedroom where Mom could watch her own shows. In my opinion, this is precisely the moment in our history when we started to unglue as families, perhaps even as a society.

I grew up without TV in the “old country.”  We huddled around the radio and listened to soccer broadcasts, music, news, talk shows, and did it as a family. Those were the days when we laughed, shouted, even cried together.

Then came the PC revolution, which was the inflection point of our increasing individual (and collective) isolation. But we still had some presence of mind and awareness of our surroundings, including friends and colleagues and their respective background chatter. It was easy to pick up the subject being discussed or jump right into the conversation itself. In other words, we were still “connected” to each other, hardwired if you will, and part of our physical social environment.

Then came the smartphone. There were prior incarnations (Apple’s Newton, anyone?) and other notable personal digital assistants (Pocket PC, Palm) that allowed us to take the screen wherever we went. These devices were targeting business adults; the kids had their own versions that were video games-inspired (Game Boy Micro, PlayStation, Xbox, et al).

However, it was Apple’s iPhone that took being screen-glued to a whole new level. That is when our aforementioned isolation entered the hockey stick moment, with no going back. How could Steve Jobs have known that his once-in-a-century creation would accelerate our isolation? Or that this isolation has now entered the domain of behavior studies that suggest a strong connection between isolation and increasing rates (and risks) of teen suicides? In a recent study Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, states that she’s noticed a number of stark behavioral changes in teens since smartphones became popular.

It seems that things are about to get progressively worse. As new disruptions such as augmented reality and virtual reality come on the market, the opportunity to further isolate ourselves with enticing if not seductively immersive experiences is even greater.

Peter Csathy, one very smart and savvy media and tech guy, recently noted that “The big challenge [with AR/VR] will be to humanize it so that we are not divorced from the reality of interacting and engaging with one another…” I agree with Peter, but that is not going to be easy to accomplish. Are we happier today than our parents and grandparents were? The latest studies on longevity confirm a correlation between longevity and real world social interaction.

So what’s the solution?

I continue to hear we need more “me time,” but I have yet to hear we need more “us time.” I do not have the answers, but perhaps some of you do; so feel free to make suggestions and recommendations. Personally, I think it will take a lot of self-discipline to ensure we don’t all end up together alone.

Bill Baker is the Founder & CEO of Celebrity Food Network. Follow @@foodiebill

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