Social evolution is trying to keep pace with technological change

            Recently, I was contemplating the nature of relationships. I have also found that the character of interpersonal relationships seems to morph over time. Specifically, over the course of the past two decades I have observed a significant change as technology becomes less a external appurtenance and more an integral part of the way we behave.

            My first real blush with how technology has changed things came a number of years ago at one of my kids’ soccer tournaments. Two older siblings of my son’s team mates were dating and had come along. I turned from my coaching duties to see them sitting on the sidelines in their sling chairs. Each was plugged into an Ipod, full cocooned in their own world….and holding hands.

I though, “Is that how they date these days?” I remember when I was in high school. The public displays of affection at the locker, although likely a bit tame by Grammy Award standards, would I’m sure never be tolerated in school today. With my now archaic letter jacket on, I would walk to class with my arm around my girlfriend and giver her a kiss as we separated. Back then, when you were with your girl, you were “with your girl.”

Last Friday, Barb and I were having lunch at a restaurant and I happened to look over at the adjacent table. There sat a couple and both were “typing” away on their smart phones. It struck me, here they are probably on a date yet engrossed in something other than their mate…on Valentines Day.

Now lest I appear preachy here, I freely admit that I had just looked up from my own device. I am perhaps one of the worst offenders to “checking out” of a conversation if my phone gives notification that a message has arrived. I also have an obnoxious piercing “sonar ping” that goes off whenever an email comes in just to ensure that everyone at the table knows I am in demand. I should say “had,” since I recently changed the sound to something more subtle, having finally acknowledged the annoyed looks my wife and colleagues have given me.

We know it is distracting and bothersome to others. In fact, while having coffee, I refused to talk with my friend Stan unless he shut his laptop. Ultimately, he did, but you could tell he was “tweaking” a bit and his had kept stroking the side of it as if it were a dog he needed to reassure.

This behavior is endemic. We are bombarded by stimuli. Clients now expect immediate response regardless of the time or circumstances. Socially, we are inundated by “feeds” like Facebook (now apparently blasé), Twitter, and Snapchat. Even within the family, I get perturbed when my kids don’t answer the phone or return a text. I know first hand that their phone is always close at hand.

I think that the real change came with the advent of the Iphone and other smart phones. It was fairly easy to ignore a phone call. I have no problem telling my staff not to disturb me when I’m in a meeting. However, our whole life is now concentrating into this one screen.

The real virtual office is here. I almost don’t need a “bricks and mortar” space. In fact, people can’t tell if I’m on a job site or the golf course, because I can handle almost everything from wherever I am. If only I could figure out how to plot full size architectural plans directly from my phone, the transformation would be complete.

While our mental assimilation of technology is increasing, the need for physical input is diminishing. With blue tooth connections and voice recognition software like Apple’s Siri, we are moving away from tactile effort. That advent of Google Glass may soon eliminate the need for even the distraction of glancing at the screen. Imagine the discontinuous conversations of the near future when your partner is staring right at you but is mentally absent, full immersed in the latest photo of someone else’s vacation in Hawaii.

Why do we do act like this? Where once I felt it was straightforward discourtesy, I have now (conveniently for me) come to believe it is simply part of human adaptation. Social evolution is trying to keep up with our technology.

Just like the pace of technological change has picked up steam, so have our attempts to adjust. “Moore’s Law” states that computing power doubles every two years. Do we really believe that we will simply be left behind?

Rude or not, I expect the evolution in our interpersonal relationships will commensurately increase. I may be upset, even by my own behavior, but I no more expect us to return to the old ways than I believe I will replace my “partial zero emission vehicle” (hybrid automobile)  with a horse-drawn carriage.

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