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  • Technology is increasingly intertwined with our everyday experiences
  • Technology is increasingly intertwined with our everyday experiences
    The Washington Post (2013) ©

Plugged in: thriving and surviving in the digital age

Digital is becoming a firm fixture in our daily lives. Theorist Tom Chatfield explains the ways in which technology intersects human nature, and how we're adapting to this new landscape.

Location Global

A few years ago people talked about 'Twitter elections', 'Facebook revolutions', and wired-up schools. Now, every school is digitally connected, every election is online and every revolution involves technology: digital is a fact of life. As it saturates our lives and work, we're starting to notice the features of this new landscape – how technology intersects human nature in troubling ways, and the unintended consequences that can proliferate.

PRISM was a milestone that crystallised a lot of latent privacy concerns. Rather than a triumph of the sinister state over the individual, in a way it showed how even governments can be subject to the wild hopes and delusions of digital. Evgeny Morozov uses the term 'solutionism' for those who peddle digital-only solutions to real world problems: they're selling snake oil. The problems they've defined within software and screens are not real-world issues, and very few existing global problems will be solved through the rise of digital.

Across a lot of different sectors, people are discovering the consequences of the systems they've invested in, and seeing their hopes, dreams and ideologies crashing against realities. With our 'social media revolutions' (or rather, geopolitics with social media and YouTube entwined) people are realising that the 'baddies' – or people they don't like – are as social media-savvy as the rest of us.

We spoke with author and theorist Tom Chatfield about how being perpetually plugged in has changed us, and the ways our relationship with technology is evolving.


Will Facebook fail?
Privacy is an everyday concern. Peoples' screens are full of attempts to get their data and encourage them to give up privacy in return for services. A decade ago people were interested in what they could keep hidden online; now it's become a question of 'who gets to know what'.

As what we do online is mostly public or quasi-public, increasingly, people are concerned that what they put out there belongs to the world rather than to them. They want to control who sees what about them, and they want to feel secure that their stuff isn't being sold or spied upon. The possibility that this control could be illusory is something of a crisis for social media.

When you look at teen migration away from Facebook, you realise that the tide could turn very quickly

We reveal so much now because we've developed systems that suck data out of people – and this is an escalating game. A while ago Google was working out who you were by analysing online behaviour and search trends to develop its advertising model, while Facebook was simply saying, “tell us what you want, what brands you like and what you've bought”.

There are underlying human factors that affect the amount we share, too. Social media requires people to present their online selves through words, images and connections. Sharing information about who we are satisfies our fundamental desire for status – how we define our standing in relation to those around us – but it's also a form of authorship. Revealing more about ourselves is enticing and addictive, and combined with network effects, social media has a tremendous gravitational pull.

But Facebook is not inherently interesting.  No matter how clever it is, without people it's boring. Their long-term challenge is to keep people – and they want to do this by getting all their data and making themselves indispensable. The trouble is, even the best data can be precious today and worthless tomorrow if the world has moved on. When you look at teen migration away from Facebook, you realise that tide could turn very quickly.

It's now inconceivable to exclusively communicate with the people in your locality It's now inconceivable to exclusively communicate with the people in your locality
The Agency Post (2013) ©

Is there a limit to our connectivity?
When so much of life is recorded and shared, people increasingly demand better ways to filter, select and control this information. There's interest in messaging systems that are more targeted than Facebook walls or Twitter feeds, and there's increasing emphasis on dividing people into different groups as a method of control.

Our limits are hard to identify, though, because we keep finding ways to push them back. For example, as a system, email has a bias towards making you constantly available to others. It just sits there receiving everything. Yet we continue to surprise ourselves by how much we can adapt and take on more. Someone like Cory Doctorow receives 20,000 emails a day, but by running multiple inboxes, systems, and protocols, he's lifted his sophistication to match what's going on.

As we become more electronically promiscuous, however, unplugged time with people – time when you're not available to others – becomes a precious luxury. The idea that a holiday's selling point can be that it's a mobile 'dead spot' suggests that disconnection has become something people crave, and actively create.

But there are underlying positives. Geography can be cruel – when you live in a place where no others share the same interests or values, you find that kinship elsewhere. Now, you're never more than a click away from finding like-minded individuals, and it's become inconceivable to get by with just the people in your locality. This path towards customisation and control – towards communities not based on local geography – has its hazards, but also a lot of positives. Even better, it means we carry connectivity to our closest friends and family wherever we are.

Television is especially effective at designing for the devices people carry at all times Television is especially effective at designing for the devices people carry at all times
Philips (2013) ©

How do physical and digital co-exist?
We live in a world where most people have a device with them at all times. They may not want to use it, but it still pays to respect – and design for – that fact. It just means working with the trend rather than getting in peoples' way.

People want goods and services that integrate into their lives; that are aware of how people are using them. Facebook is an example of how not to achieve this: people are becoming intolerant of the way it wants to do everything other services and platforms already do.

This design principle extends beyond technology. When people publish textbooks, for example, they don't consider that a modern student is going to have it open next to their smartphone and a desktop computer; these three things working simultaneously. If you can design with an awareness of that, you're doing something right. Television – particularly live television – has the hang of this; it achieves spikes of attention when everyone's using hashtags, talking about the X Factor result or the latest plot twist in Supernatural.

That's not to say people want everything digital. They want to be in the real world, but with an augmented layer of information available. People have passionate relationships with brands like Moshi Monsters. The moment people care about something enough, they take it off-screen – into plush toys, magazines, films, cartoons, swap-meets, collectible cards and so on.

People always want more than just a screen. That's why the live event is a bigger deal than ever; whether it's a concert or a meet-up. The biggest point of being on social media, for example, is getting invited to the party and sharing the photos to show you were there. Rather than discussing virtual vs. physical, people are starting to accept that technology is in the world and of the world – and so are we.

Moshi Monsters are engaging enough to exist off-screen as toys, cupcakes and more Moshi Monsters are engaging enough to exist off-screen as toys, cupcakes and more
Small Town Girl Bakery (2013) ©

Will we become cyborgs?
There's an increasingly smart network of elements being embedded into our cities, towns and the goods we buy. It suggests our smartphones will soon become the hub through which we control and relate to other things. We can already shop, work, unlock a car, pay for things and carry our plane tickets on our phones. We're moving to a stage where you can leave the house with just your smartphone and make everything else happen via its presence alone.

There's an increasingly smart network of elements being embedded into our cities, towns and the goods we buy

Technology can give people greater control, and it will be interesting to watch how this develops in the future – not just new, shiny super-gadgets, but open technologies that can be controlled and customised beyond manufacturers schemes, that are designed with more than monopolising your time and attention in mind.

Emptying an inbox as it constantly fills up with rubbish is soul-destroying, writing a personal message to a close friend on the other side of the world is deeply rewarding. Both occur through the same technology. The challenge is for people to see their relationship with technology in terms of what they want, rather than what the system designers want. To treat technology as unalterable or inevitable when it is simply a system designed by other human beings is one the greatest mistakes we can make.

Tom Chatfield is a British writer and commentator. He has written five books exploring digital culture - most recently How to Thrive in the Digital Age and Netymology. A fornightly columnist for the BBC and a TED Speaker, his work has appeared in over a dozen territories and languages.

Related on Canvas8
'Is digital dividing families?' (August 2013)
'Digital disclosure: the bear that makes people share' (August 2013)
'Tile: smart solutions for simple issues' (July 2013)
'Dornbracht: the rise of the spa bathroom' (May 2013)
'Philips Hue: the birth of Digital DIY' (November 2012)
'Waze: navigating the smart city' (October 2012)

Related TABS

Attention Economy - People are increasingly information and stimulus rich but consequently time and attention poor.
Blended Reality - The line between online and offline worlds is blurring.
Privacy and Control - A heightened awareness of the importance of controlling access to private data.