In our modern age, people usually associate cellphones with introversion and isolation. At my cousin’s home in Tokyo, businessmen and students alike keep to their flip phones and novellas on the subway. Nobody is allowed to talk1, save for the foreigners and newcomers who haven’t yet learned to respect the silence. How fortunate it is, then, that we have phones to keep us busy, without which we would have to stare uncomfortably at our feet or out the window—heaven forbid you accidentally make eye contact with somebody. To some lesser extent, this self-inflicted alienation is present in urban cultures all over the world, and for good reason too. The subway is hardly an ideal place to meet new people, and loud talking is rude to those who prefer to sleep or read. With the proliferation of inexpensive smartphones and mobile Internet access, literally everybody can have something to occupy themselves with during the silence of an evening commute. It’s no surprise that cell phones are highly stigmatized at social events: we are all too familiar with the sight of friends or couples who make the effort to sit down at a nice restaurant only to play games and text virtual friends underneath the table. However, cell phones themselves aren’t the reason behind this pandemic of global estrangement. If anything, they have only highlighted the symptoms.
There is nothing wrong with mobile technology or the integration of such into our lives in general. We’re all cyborgs of one kind or another2. It makes me excited to think that the next generation of consumers will be constantly connected to the Internet through one thing or another. The problems arise because society, as a whole, is not yet mature enough to handle its power. Mobile technology is not meant to supplant, but to supplement the way people connect to one another. Whether silence should be enforced on public transportation is debatable, but it is an excellent real-world example of how technology is used in an unhealthy way. A few years ago, I set up a filter on my SMTP daemon that let me post to a specialized blog by sending text messages to a special address from my (non-Internet-enabled) cellphone. Later, I expanded the system to perform administrative tasks and start (Wake-on-Lan) a media server back at home. My phone’s SMS capability was like a tenuous one-way connection to an enormous virtual universe. It became very convenient as a remote control to my assets online—I could stream and share media from my file server to my friends house without leaving it on all the time. However, I could have just as easily misused its communication abilities as an effective pretext to look busy to avoid eye contact. For a culture that grows tired of effortful face-to-face communication, mobile blogging is certainly a tempting pastime. Moreover, digital distractions have become trivially easy to procure nowadays, and if consumer maturity can’t keep up with the growing temptation, even city centers could become devoid of human voices as we all keep our eyes fixed on our smartphones. Consequently, the burden of responsibility falls increasingly on the programmer, where it historically hasn’t before, to produce technology that focuses on connecting rather than simply entertaining (although they are not mutually exclusive). The bulk of digital content today (news, social feeds) is passively consumed and captivates the attention of its consumer without asking for a response. Responsible media should beg for interpretation: technology should encourage questions and enable new ways of learning, of sharing ideas whose interpretation requires more thought than does reading an image macro.