A seismic shift in social behavior has occurred over the last decade that to the best of my knowledge was not forecasted by futurists.

While in the early 80s we wrote and read about telecommuting, the evolution of Arpanet, the workings and impact of smaller, less expensive, more mobile computers, the progeny of CB radio, the future of what was then known as videotex and teletext, and the commercial beginnings of satellite communication, no one forecast a radical change in Western social behavior. The change has been dramatic.

We have become the Interruptive Society – interrupting and interrupted.

Elevators have become phone booths. The preface to almost any public event, sacred or profane, is an announcement to shut down the beepers, pagers, and cell phones. Public restrooms have become phone call centers. Fewer conversations are held face-to-face, while those that still are find the speakers reading their email, phone or paging messages, signaling another, taking a telephone photo, or dialing for information, perhaps simultaneously. iPods serve as personal background music during many active conversations.

There is a total disregard for someone else’s space – one’s physical, visual or audio space. Hundreds of years of social convention have been discarded in less than a decade.  Private space has disappeared.

While it is no longer proper to smoke in public – given the dangers of second hand consumption – there is no taboo for ignoring your neighbor’s privacy via cell phone or other interactive gear. Few think twice about pointing a phone in someone’s direction and snapping an unasked for photo.

It is hard to find a positive dimension to any of this.

Smartphone photography © 2013 Verhalle
Smartphone photography © 2013 Verhalle

What were the early warning signs? It was door-to-door sales people, peddling household cleaners, and encyclopedia and magazine sales. It was the increasing stack of junk mail in our postal boxes, or the unwanted inserts, flyers, booklets that fell out of our newspapers. It was 30 second and 15 second and 10 second commercials, and then logos and messages that sprang up on TV screens and now scroll endlessly across the top and bottom, and that are mimicked on our computers. It was the telemarketer “smart” enough to call at suppertime, or in the early evening. All helping the viewer, the recipient become more and more distracted, and more and more conditioned to interruptions.

At work, the phone, calculator, computer keyboards began crowding desks in cubicles that had replaced offices. It encouraged multi-tasking, doing more than one thing at once, combining office assignments with personal stuff. Doing more than one thing at once went quickly from novelty to necessity. Given the office behavior, privacy disappeared.

What created it? It was technology that led to the ease and ever presence of communications devices, that allowed media and communications functions to be combined. It was marketers looking for opportunities to intrude, to gain a competitive advantage, to “get there first”. It was consumers, who, becoming more and more time pressed and in need of constant stimulation and entertainment, sought out, adopted and adapted an array of intrusive tools. For everyone it became self-serving – me first!

What are the hazards? For the interrupted individuals the hazards include a lack of personal privacy and often-dangerous distractions.

Take driving for example. A once normal car ride (talking with a passenger or perhaps listening to the radio), has been turned into a ringing car phone, XM radio, satellite assisted computerized directions and maps, and in many vehicles video players and soon to come in-car-TV broadcasts. Yet more dangerous is the growing hostility to those doing the interruption, resulting even in road rage.

For the interrupting individual the hazards include great impatience that the message isn’t being received or is being ignored. A lack of focus because of the many short term things that need to be done to block out the activities that might take a few minutes more.

For society as a whole, the regulation – for reasons of safety, decency, and privacy – becomes ever more complicated. Ranging from “do not call” lists to battles between advertisers, broadcasters, regulators, legislators, lobbyists and special interest groups, this climate creates an often times impossible to exit maze.

Pile of electronic devices © 2011 Keith | Flickr.com
Pile of electronic devices © 2011 Keith | Flickr.com

Are there any benefits? There are indeed some benefits, but you have to search for them.  One of them is that rarely is someone lost today. The population is able to get immediate assistance – for information, for emergency conditions, for purchasing, etc.  Though the assistance might come from an avatar, and might also involve the need for further intrusion into one’s privacy.

Another benefit is that a person can be truly more independent, relying less on others for assistance, being more self sufficient.

What does the future hold? Short term the future holds less civility. More noise pollution. Perhaps there will be a market for Maxwell Smart’s Cone of Silence. There will be more carpel tunnel and thumb traumas as our digits become extensions of our mouth, eyes and ears. There will also be fewer days and periods of rest, as interruptions will continue to be made and warded off.

On a more serious and higher plane, there could be intellectual damage resulting from pervasive periods of abbreviated thinking; short term and rush focused everything. Issues requiring more intense and longer study will suffer. It will be harder to extract the reality from the hype, to come to genuine meta-information from the flood of news, facts and opinions all meshed and mangled together.

This should perhaps be more intensely studied now, lest ten years hence, the interrupted and the interrupting will have created impenetrable barriers to productive socialization.