Another one of common theme from last month’s SxSW Festival was the self-driving car – specifically the work Google is doing. There seems to be a large amount of pent-up anticipation in the geek community for an automobile that will take it’s passengers from here to there with the least amount of human intervention possible. One of the primary arguments I’ve heard for this technology is “Think of all the other things you can do with that time! You can answer emails, keep in touch with friends on Facebook, follow the news on Twitter…”. Now as I mentioned before, I’m a person who likes cars and enjoys driving, so this concept is a bit foreign to me. There was a time when driving was an activity meant to be enjoyed in and of itself. Things like mobile phones were a distraction from that activity. But as technology has advanced, and as we now have placed increased importance on what takes place online, the priorities have reversed. The connection to the online world, or the Data Feed, is now the primary activity, and driving (for many) is the distraction. This is exemplified by the large numbers of people who either talk on the phone (sans a hands-free device) or text while driving. This is despite the nearly universal acceptance of the fact that this is dangerous behavior. And it is not only driving that is an annoyance blocking us from our latest tweet or email. About a week ago, there was a report from several news outlets saying that the FAA was considering lifting it’s ban on the use of certain electronics during take-off and landing on commercial flights. The current policy is extremely unpopular with travelers, who have found the 10-20 minutes of disconnection from their data feed during takeoff too much to bear. A large percentage of commercial flights are equipped with wifi, so passenger can re-connect to the Internet as soon as the flight reaches altitude.
The question for up for discussion in this post is why has uninterrupted connection to the data feed become so critical? Why is it so important that we maintain this data line to the outside world, to the point we are willing to put our lives (and the lives of others) at risk?
In his book “Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now”, media theorist Doug Rushkoff proposes an answer to this question. He believes that our need to constantly be connected is a futile quest for “digital omnipotence” – a desire to be all-knowing, via our devices. He claims this is futile because the best thing all of our gadgets can provide is a report of “what just happened” as opposed to reporting what’s happening in the moment. This is due to both the communication delay inherent in our technologies and our brain’s limited ability to process information. While his position may seem extreme at first, a quick review of the history of mobile communications tends to support his point. The first step on the mobile communications ladder was the pager. The pager was a simple device that, while not allowing you to directly communicate with a person, would tell you someone was trying to contact you. The user could then get to the nearest phone and call the number on the pager’s display. This was followed by the simple cellular telephone, which allowed us to speak directly with others whenever we wanted, wherever we were. This ability to reach someone, however, was limited to instances when both individuals were in an atmosphere where they could speak freely (for example, a meeting with your boss isn’t the best time to take a call from a recruiter about a new position). We needed phones capable of letting us communicate with others in circumstances when verbal communication wasn’t possible. This led to phones capable of messaging and email. With the arrival of these phones, terms such as “crackberry” (a reference to the addictive behavior exhibited by users of Blackberry messaging phones) entered our lexicon. Having found a way to give ourselves constant access to individuals, the next logical step was to find a way to gain constant access to information. To address that need, the smartphone was born. Its ability to provide full Internet access, as well as specialized apps, can keep us awash in a constant stream of information (as long as there’s signal). The progression from 2.5G to 3 & 4G, to LTE wireless data networks was all an effort to get more data to us faster.
What’s the next step in our telecom evolution? It very well may be wearable computing, such as the much-publicized Google Glass. Google Glass is a device which mounts to a user’s eyeglasses, and places a small, transparent display in the user’s field of vision. This display will be able to both keep the wearer informed with the latest updates from his or her data feed, as well as provide information about the users immediate surroundings (via a small, outward-facing camera). Each step in the evolution of these devices has been an attempt to bring the data closer to the user – to minimize the time it takes for us to digest the data coming in. With each attempt at minimizing this time, we get tantalizingly closer to knowing whatever we want to know, the instant we want to know it.
So is Rushkoff right? Is this desire for a constant flow of data, delivered at ever-faster speeds, ultimately a desire to be omnipotent? To be like God?
Or are we simply reading too much into our desire to be more productive?
Share your thoughts in the comments…