What is a phone for? It sounds like a daft question. It certainly would have done twenty years ago. A phone is for calling other people, right? It’s a second rate alternative to seeing them in person, that has advantages of range and convenience.
Today, of course, a phone is rarely for calling other people. It’s for listening to music, browsing social networks, playing games or watching films. Cue the complaints of commentators around the world that no-one talks anymore, that we’re all lost in our screens.
There is certainly a measure of that. My only conversation on my regular train journeys up and down to London this week, was to help someone else connect their screen to the Wi-Fi. Maybe in the past I might have chatted more to other passengers. Maybe that would be ‘a good thing’.
But look at how we actually use our phones, particularly the youngest group of adults, and I think the picture is rather rosier than usually painted. Four of the top five iOS apps for 2017 were communications apps. Not solo pursuits like video streaming, or even books, or news. But ways to interact with other people. Our phones have become a more common medium of communication, often acting as a broker for physical interaction — as dating apps have become — but the virtual world remains clearly subordinate to the real.
This is not a brief respite in an long decline. I don’t believe the direction of travel is downward. Our technology is becoming more transparent, not more opaque. There will be a digital layer to our reality for most of our waking (and possibly sleeping) lives within a few short years. But this technology enables us to design interfaces and interactions that are natural and derived from our long-developed experience with the physical world. Instead of staring at screens we will have digital information naturally inserted into our physical world. And our need to interact with it will be progressively reduced as we hand over more decision making to semi-autonomous systems: exception management replaces remote control.
This terrifies many, particularly those with clarity about the security implications. They are right to be scared. But I don’t think this fear will slow the direction of travel: we will simply have to address the threats as we go.
Direction from the vinyl groove
Swallow down this fear though, and I think the picture is largely positive. More things will be digital and virtual. But just as has happened with music, there is a counter trend when this happens. We’re happy for the day-to-day to be low friction and virtual, but this almost enhances our desire for richer experiences: live music, and vinyl.
Tomorrow is not sterile screens and pallid human automata. It’s rich, tactile and human.
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