“Jack into the ‘net -make an impact and realise your full potential!”
Taken from future advert for the first Matrix implant computing system.
Don’t sign me up…
I really enjoy technology that allows me to do work from a remote home office, but outside of work unless the technology enables face-to-face time and with people geographically near to me then my time may be best spent elsewhere. Having children helps keep it real for me. My filter operates on the premise that unless something I’m doing online is going to benefit my work/career, my family, my community, or teach me something useful within those spheres – then it’s not high priority.
Stay with me, this isn’t just a rant about disconnectness or a deadbeat Internet obsessed parent! This potentially applies to you, your business network and how you come up with new ideas.
Social apps leave me cold. I guess if they’re called social apps I can’t fault them for focusing on solving social “problems” such as “How to find your friends on Friday night!” or answering important life questions like “should I eat here?” Now we’re able to find “deals” locally and much much more with all this hyperlocal app mumbo jumbo. But how did we ever survive without these precious tools? I dare say we had to talk with friends, family and neighbours to get recommendations or phone them to ask what they’re up to next week.
All the work-related benefits of Internet/social apps/LBS technology aside, consider how information technology can easily push us toward isolation from others around us. On the surface it doesn’t seem to be a bad thing – with 10 minutes noticed I can hang out online with more geo-geeks than I can ever muster up within a 400km radius from my home office. Seriously.
But when it comes to connecting with my neighbour, our city council or even local businesses, it’s a complete and utter fail. Granted, I don’t live in the largest municipality, but the impact is similar in large centres too. You can occasionally find some new local shop or service you didn’t know was just around the corner, but more often than not you find one that is across town or out of town instead. As we travel to these non-local sites we continue the isolation from our “real” local communities and local business networks.
If the technology is helping isolate us, how do we bring it back around? Egads! It gets kinda messy to be liberated from this Matrix machine sometimes, but there are some time-tested models for rehabilitation that you might consider. Here are two…
In a previous post (Open Gov/Data Needs Collaborative Common Spaces) – I proposed that we need to get data providers into the same rooms as those who are users or, better yet, those who best add value to the data. Rubbing shoulders, face-to-face, sharing problems and solutions across domains and disciplines is key. We don’t always know what the outcome will be, but the more isolated these stakeholders and providers are, the more insular the outcome. Guaranteed. I was pointing to the co-working model as one way to help make that happen – though enabling public servants to hang out in more accessible locations may be the largest barrier to that idea!
Steven Johnson touches on a similar vein in his talk on where good ideas come from. Hint: it’s not from reviewing the results of a multi-year stakeholder survey. Nor is it from mining mailing lists or user groups dedicated to a particular topic. His conclusion is similar to mine, using the coffee house as an example of the kind of unstructured communication that leads to breakthroughs. Now we are way beyond metaphors here, we’re talking real, meaningful and messy ways of bringing people together to serendipitously meet, chat and share. That could be around the boardroom table once a week when you bring in disparate team members, but even better if you can be rubbing shoulders with others in a non-exclusive environment.
What does that look like?
I have some vague ideas – co-working space, coffee shop, impromptu customer visits, hackfests, heck even the water cooler! – but I think we’re still early in defining what these look like and how to best engage at a more meaningful level. Ironically, I do believe that much of the answer lies in (pre-Internet era) history, so asking relatives that are not as online connected may reveal some interesting results.
However, I do believe that the first step in truly coming to grips with the reality of techno-fueled isolation is to admit there is a need to “bring ourselves back together” in a meaningful way. It’s early days, but mark my words we’ll have a whole industry devoted to helping people get “unplugged” and we’ll see friends and colleagues disappear from online while they reclaim their local relationships. I don’t think it needs to be that dramatic but is worthy of some consideration to find an effective balance and to check that our pulses are not timed with our router packet traffic.
We’ll know there has been progress when hyperlocal starts to refer to relationships between people and not our relationship with applied technology. Likewise, we could benefit by reclaiming the definition of communication as a conversation between two people. And the time is now, not after Skynet becomes sentient or the Matrix materialises… without our knowing.