I feel old this week! Three incidents in the last six days have really made me realise which side of the technological generation gap I’m on!
The first was a conversation with a twenty-something member of the team at one of our strategic partners – about ‘sociable robots’ of all things! (That’s not as random as it sounds; we’re working on a programme on the subject). I can see the potential for robots which can become carers or companions for the most vulnerable people in our society; but I also agree with Sherry Turkle at MIT, that we shouldn’t lose sight of their limitations. One of the most important of those, in my view, is that machines can only be programmed to act out human capacities like empathy. They can’t actually experience them. My young colleague said he thought a convincing performance could be good enough. I don’t– but that’s the point of making the programme. There are strong views on both sides and it’s a question which needs debating.
The next day, I was in another associate’s studio. I was working with a producer who is of a similar age to me, as well as a young woman not long out of college. She took an active part in the session – although through most of it, she had her phone in her hand and was constantly interacting with absent friends.
The third incident is the one that gives this post its title. It’s a news story – or rather, the reaction to it.
Steve Tyler is Landlord of the Gin Tub, in Hove, East Sussex. He’s so fed up with customers talking to invisible friends via social media, rather than the people they’re physically drinking with, he’s installed a Faraday cage to stop mobile signals. He’s done it, he says, because he wants to give people a break from being connected – and he wants to stop all the atmosphere in the bar being drained away into remote locations.
Now, all this sounds perfectly reasonable to me. In my quaint, old-fashioned world, the whole reason for going out for a drink is to catch up with the friends you’re out with. When 5 Live covered the story, though, a straw poll of drinkers in Salford made me feel like a lone voice in the wilderness!
One man admitted to clutching his phone and feeling quite ‘twitchy’ because he knew he couldn’t look at it during the interview (which would have lasted no more than a few minutes). . Others made comments like:
‘But I might get notifications! People might be trying to message me!’
‘How would you play Pokemon Go?!’ and (most depressing for me)
‘I reckon he’ll go out of business pretty soon’.
I really hope the last contributor is proved wrong. Yes, some customers might leave, but there’s a massive marketing opportunity here – a chance to attract a whole new clientele; people who still appreciate the chance for a face-to-face chat, without the constant threat of being interrupted by a phone – their own or anyone else’s! There are parallels here with the smoking ban. Yes, I know a lot of people abandoned their local; but others who previously avoided the pub etc were drawn in by the promise of being able to have a drink without a compulsory secondhand smoke chaser.
Steve isn’t advocating being completely cut off from the 21st century. There’s an area outside the bar where people can use their phones as much as they like (described on the radio as similar to the provision pubs make for smokers); and there’s a landline inside, for emergencies. All he’s saying, as I understand it, is that as much as we might love our technology, it’s good to have a break sometimes. One of the reasons I love studio work is that the phone either has to go off or stay outside – so no-one can get to me in there!
It’s too simplistic, of course, to say this is just a generational issue – that all young people are unconditionally pro tech and all older ones are anti. I have friends who buck the trend on both sides of the divide; but a divide certainly does exist. When it comes to technology, that will always be the case.
The technology that’s around when we’re born is just a normal part of life. Anything invented before we’re thirty-five is interesting – even exciting; but anything that comes along after that is ‘the devil’s work!’
That’s obviously not a hard and fast rule, but it’s not a bad guideline.
As time goes on, increasingly sophisticated tech is bound to become even more deeply interwoven into everyday life. That will open up some amazing opportunities for all of us – as it already has; but my message, as always, is that to get the best out of those new opportunities, we need to keep hold of some traditional human skills. We have to maintain a balance between the physical and the virtual. To do that, we need to keep talking – in every sense of the word.
We’ll go on with the theme of talking in the next post; specifically, the words we use to label one another. In the meantime, if you have any:
come and talk to me – maybe over a drink at the Gin Tub?! All the details (for me – not the bar!) are on the website.