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.

4 thoughts on “The Interruptive Society

  1. I worked with author Peter Eder in the late 70s and early 80s and I have often recalled the McKinsey and Bain reports that circulated among the marketing group of our mutual telecommunications employer. Those forecasts described breathtaking breakthroughs (we call them disruptive technologies today), such as automated banking, cell phones, a “digital highway,” and vast changes in retail transactions. Most of those forecasts have already materialized and been displaced by even greater innovations.

    I do not recall any credible business source discussing how all this might impact interpersonal transactions. Certainly no one in business was talking about the relationship between commercial innovation and wholesale social change. I do recall a few science fiction writers tackling the topic . . .

    I no longer work in telecommunications, having switched to natural resources some years ago. There are some interesting commonalities between invasive species and communications devices. In both cases, there appears to be no turning back.

  2. There is an enormous amout of big data about us floating around. I’m about ready to become an anti-technology Ludite.

    What if we discovered that everybody’s I-phone camera was actually ‘on’ and transmitting information…. But who would fish through it all?

    Who owns the data
    of a person’s pacemaker or the data captured by a hearing aid? Do we have hearing aids that can transmit information from business meetings? Hmmm.

    I am fascinated with the hobbyists who use UAVs to photograph things for art or farming uses. But when a UAV would hover over my backyard I’d be upset, surely. Will UAVs be used to replace news and traffic and police helicopterson the interstate. What if they photograph me in my yard or on my building’s rooftop. (But is that different than a recreational ballonist flying over an Amish home and taking a photo…)
    Please follow on with a discussion of how smart we really are with all this data available on so-called smart phones. Do we graduate college faster or do we employe people faster or more effectively?
    We turn off the cell phones in the movies, but not in the office.
    We turn off the cell phones in movies but not in Church.
    Makes a person wonder how much smarter we actually are.
    Are the phone companes fleecing poor people for a thousand dollars a year (or more) in fees for addicting data?

  3. the article and discussion about the interruptive society resonates with anyone over 4 decades of age.
    on the other hand, one observing the generations that have grown up with smartphones, videogames and tablets as play things (replacing the boob tube as babysitter, and lincoln logs, dolls and legos as toys) will see that these individuals have fewer if any problems with the “distractions” of others talking, walking and talking on handheld devices…perhaps, in part because they are too distracted to even notice. they are wired differently, their brains function unlike past generations, and this is thus the new normal for them.

    it is 24/7, to the point where a majority of that demographic sleep with or next to their precious communication devices. there are always multiple screens nearby to ensure that not a single conversation, photo or video has been missed.

    it is telling that young people will say that they “spoke” with someone when in fact their lips never moved, only their thumbs! youngsters today even “speak” with each other at the dinner table via their smartphones, without even looking up from their food. that habit is simply learned by watching young parents and couples doing the same thing in social settings.

    today, the dick tracy watch — first introduced about 70 (yes, 70) years ago as part of a comic strip — has become a reality thanks to samsung and others. now people walk down the street talking to their wrists as opposed to the air as when cellular phones were introduced not that long ago.

    my personal hope is that privacy in all transportation modes (planes, trains and automobiles – and even elevators!) will be in place for those who desire a quiet commute. and as with smoking, alcohol, and various forms of noise, there will be a devoted small space for all of that to occur among those who don’t even notice.

    and btw, when will the100+ year old New School finally change its name?

    1. As a, I admit, relatively old man, I am very happy to teach at the New School. And I hope we don’t change our name any faster than the old New Synagogue in Prague, completed in 1270. And I find it strange that so many old folk still can’t accept that there are new ways to communicate, for better and for ill. It is more interesting to me to examine how the new media are used and formed than to worry about the ill manners of the young. More exciting to explore new possibilities than to bemoan the passing of old ways. And by the way the good old New School is still 5 years short of 100.

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