The digitally blindfolded: smartphone zombies and the devaluation of social presence

As I cycle through the city on a daily basis, I notice a constant increase in encounters with pedestrians so immersed in their smartphones, they are in fact “digitally blindfolded”. Busy interacting with their media or contacts on the internet, the digitally blindfolded barely notice the imminent danger of death as they stumble around on bike paths or between motorized traffic. Often, there is not even a reaction to ringing a bell; ears plugged with the aural dimension of a constant stream of medial input, it would take at least a truck’s horn to get their attention.

Watch out for digitally blindfolded smartphone zombies!
Image caption: Watch out for digitally blindfolded smartphone zombies!

Now, I don’t care how people choose to remove themselves from the gene pool. With a defensive riding style, the smartphone zombies don’t create immediate danger to the vigilant cyclist either. But this trend towards total extraction from the physical space makes me uncomfortable. Uncomfortable mainly, because I have been working as an interaction designer for almost a decade – operating in the very field contributing to the digital present. And through the sociological lens deeply embedded in my brain, I can’t help but wonder what is going on here.

Is this how we want to live?

As it turns out, I am not the only one. In 2012, Simon Jenkins from the Guardian described the new reality in our oh-so-social new world in what sounds like the dystopian opening of a blockbuster apocalypse film:

I first noticed it in a restaurant. The place was strangely quiet, and at one table a group seemed deep in prayer. Their heads were bowed, their eyes hooded and their hands in their laps. I then realised that every one, young and old, was gazing at a hand-held phone. People strolled the street outside likewise, with arms crooked at right angles, necks bent and heads in potentially crippling postures. Mothers with babies were doing it. Students in groups were doing it. They were like zombies on call. There was no conversation.

Published earlier this month, Tim Askew’s column “The Zombiefication of Business Travelers” on Inc. Magazine describes how lonely one may feel stranded in an environment where everybody has extracted themselves from the physical context; people encapsulate themselves with their devices to a degree that it can be almost impossible to approach anyone without the feeling of deeply intruding their personal space.

Smartphone zombies (artistic interpretation)
Image caption: Smartphone zombies (artistic interpretation).

Yet, Askew’s concern is not about not having nobody to talk to. It is about the lost opportunities to encounter new people, broaden our world view beyond the cloud-filtered profile bubble the virtual presence abducts us into:

I’m afraid technology is turning us into dull-eyed, unpresent I-Zombies. We are losing the gift for connection to our fellow human beings, as well as stunting our brain processes that summon nonrational revelations and “aha”s.

Communication technology has embedded itself into an everyday life world where it sometimes seems that the “social” news feed is more important than giving a nod to a courteous passer-by holding the door, where live-tweeting a photo to one’s “followers” is more important than to help fellow passengers to evacuate a crashed airliner, and where it is preferred to “connect” to new people based on a recommendation engine’s algorithm rather than learning about the interesting life story of that person next in the queue.

Did the smartphone kill unmediated sociality?

Are we, in our constant quest for making life ever more social with the help of networked technology, gradually reducing the concept of “social” into a technical, rather than a human term?

“Social technology” undisputedly provides a wide range of possibilities to establish and maintain relationships in ways never possible before, overcoming restrictions of time and place, enriching personal relations in meaningful ways and providing truly worthwhile experiences. But if it is seen as a means in itself, there is a risk that it slowly but steadily undermines the social value of presence, immediacy and – maybe most valulable – the “unprogrammed” (i.e. social interactions not processed by engineered software).

Street photographer Babycakes Romero from London created an impressive image series documenting how this focus on the mediated sociality affects our reality. “The Death of Conversation” shows people in formerly “social situations” who have all withdrawn into a parallel reality. The artist’s commentary is rather dark:

Yes, it stops you feeling awkward and lets you pretend to be doing something rather than engage in conversation but just leave it alone for five minutes and see how you get on… you might be alright. Disappearing into your phone certainly isn’t going to help.

The series "The Death of Conversation" on the website of street photographer Babycakes Romero.
Image caption: “The Death of Conversation” on the website of street photographer Babycakes Romero.

Romero’s photographs show families, co-workers and couples with everybody engaged on handheld devices, deeply immersed in the virtual. In their black-and-white aesthetics, the images transmit a feeling of emptiness, of co-presence rendered meaningless as everybody has their means to engage with something apparently more appealing.

Back to designing real interactions!

I still believe this is not the way things have to go. Humankind must not surrender to the reign of the news feed, but take back the power from the devices. We have to engage in a debate on how communication technology can augment rather than replace our nature-given sociality.

As “Alone Together” author Sherry Turkle puts it in her 2012 TED talk “Connected but Alone?”:

Now we all need to focus on the many, many ways technology can lead us back to our real lives, our own bodies, our own communities, our own politics, our own planet. They need us. Let’s talk about how we can use digital technology, the technology of our dreams, to make this life the life we can love.

Static preview image for embedded contentClick to view the video from TED.com

“Designing interactions” on a screen seems comparatively easy; click here, click there, user feedback, message to the server, distribution to the clients, notification window, maybe a beep. In contrast, looking at the public spaces of our cities today, it seems the next frontier for interaction design is how to show people that the social space with the most potential for memorable experiences lies idle – the very physical environment we live in.

Let’s get busy with this – I don’t want to have to swivel around any more of those digitally blindfolded “i-zombies” than are already out there …and next time you catch yourself instagraming that photo from the restaurant, halt for a moment and consider might somebody feel alienated if you consider telling the world that you are “having dinner with a friend” more important than having dinner with that friend?

  • Jarno M. Koponen on Twitter:

    "Humankind must not surrender to the reign of the news feed" http://sebastiangreger.net/2014/10/digitally-blindfolded-smartphone-zombies/ … by @sebastiangreger #internet #diversity

    2014-10-30

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