Most technological inventions are not inherently good or evil, they are just tools and it is up to the humans in charge of them to decide how they will be used. I wonder then, when did the Internet become the evil master villain? I’ve been reading so much recently about how to keep away from the online world, resist the addiction, throw away the smartphones. There are songs, books, blogs (which is so ironic it feels like trolling), and probably a church coming up soon. When did every person with a smartphone become an addict that needs an intervention?
At some point last year, I was sitting in a restaurant, all by myself on a business trip. I got these strange looks from people around me, because I was on my phone for most of that time. The image of the lonely dude, eating dinner by himself, consumed by his smartphone was troubling my fellow humans. There was a cloud of disgust and pity that was so thick you could cut through it. I wasn’t killing boredom with flying birds though, I was keeping up with my friends and family half a world away. I was having a more meaningful social interaction through that glass screen than I could have ever had by striking up a conversation about the NFL game with someone at the bar. They were seeing me sit alone, but they weren’t seeing all the people smiling behind that tiny shiny screen.
For me the Internet is about connecting people. Sharing knowledge. It’s our immature teleportation mechanism… we can’t physically cross the distance yet, but we can be “present” more than ever before, anywhere in the world.
Anyone that has gone through a long distance relationship will tell you how handy this is. When you’re far away for months, you will grasp onto anything that gets you closer. Watching the same streamed film while on a Skype call can be as close as you get until the next trip.
Yes, there’s something to be said about the serendipity of chatting up strangers in a public place and how some of that is probably lost. But hey, some of us have never been particularly adept at that anyway, and I doubt this would have improved with or without smartphones. That aside though, I have doubts that any conversation I would strike up on my commute would be more valuable or interesting to me than the podcast I’m listening to. Or reading updates from Twitter, where I can follow great people that I would have never gotten a chance to communicate with otherwise. Or seeing updates from the life of my friends and family on Facebook.
We are not anti-social, we are super-social. We are absorbing knowledge from people that we have never met, we are getting updates from friends that we would have lost touch with before, we are able to talk to our loved ones wherever we are. All you see is the person with a screen lighting up their face, but from that little device, connections go out to so many other humans.
This is not to say that physical presence matters any less than it ever did. This is not to say that some people aren’t becoming so addicted to their devices that they are damaging their relationships and lives. Yes, there are many problems out there and they need our attention. But the solution is not to demonise the technology and run for the woods, it is to develop ways of merging these technologies into our lives for the better.
As mobile developers we have a moral and social duty to think about these issues, to aim for the positive impact in people’s lives and not for the mindless addiction. But, in the end, these inventions are tools and it’s up to every single one of us if we’ll use them for “good” or for “evil”.