always-on people

Fabio Sergio | January 2003


In a long-forgotten, recent past we were told technology would give people "more time" and allow us all to "do what we love" rather than having to "love what we do".
Shan-gri-la would have the scent of silicon, or so it seemed.
I don't know about you, but just looking around I don't see that happening.
Yet, at least.

We are busier than ever, and often vexed by the very objects that were supposed to ease our lives.
During one of the most memorable SIG-CHI 99's speeches I recall Bruce Sterling half-joking about the fact that we have brought it upon ourselves to use technology that way.
He was indeed right, but not because we consciously decided that we liked the idea of doing five things at once.
He was right because, in case you have forgotten the old mantra, the medium happens to be (once more) the message.

Think about multi-tasking, the very same example Sterling had used to make his point.
As our needs for faster and faster PCs drove producers to develop chips that could do more things at once, no one probably ever thought that the day would come when we would be expected to constantly do the same.
Even though I will gladly admit that human beings have always been great at multitasking, as any mother will easily attest, what has changed now is the speed and frequency at which we are required to think and act, and not necessarily in this order.
We have adopted a multi-tasking-oriented mindset because the message constantly whispered by the devices that increasingly mediate our social relationships has ended up permeating our very own way of thinking.

Continuous partial presence

Multi-tasking-capable, always-on devices have been driving what Linda Stone, a researcher at Microsoft, has called a state of continuous partial attention.
As Thomas Friedman reports in his article (requires registration) "Cyber Serfdom":

"It means that while you are answering your e-mail and talking to your kid, your cell phone rings and you have a conversation.
You are now involved in a continuous flow of interactions in which you can only partially concentrate on each.
... we are constantly scanning the world for opportunities and we are constantly in fear of missing something better.
That has become incredibly spiritually depleting.
"

Marketing and advertising people have been telling us for quite a while that the benefits of always-on, connected mobile devices will be economical, as we'll only pay for the bits we download and not for the time we stay connected to The Network.
Truth is always-on devices will make for always-on people.
Actually, as I've pointed out in the past, they already have.

Results of our rising expectations towards constant availability are already well known, like the disappearing boundaries between work and play, between our professional and personal life.
Academics like Phil Agre have been addressing these themes for quite a while now, such as in his eye-opening 2001 article "Welcome to the Always-On World", somewhat based on his 2000 essay "Notes on the New Design Space".

"Now look at the situation from the point of view of relationships.
You have a wide variety of relationships in your life: with your family members, your doctor, your fellow employees, your bank, and so on.
With the growth of new information and communications technologies, each relationship is becoming a continual presence. ...
This is a tremendous shift in human relationships: from episodic to always-on.
"

Unsurprisingly the first macroscopic effects of always-on human relationships have started surfacing in highly connected countries such as Japan, as recently noticed by Mark Schreiber in his article "Gadgets gnaw at polite society. It's not funny how we don't talk anymore.", published on the Japan Times Online.

"In Japan's cities, the whole social milieu appears structured towards mutual avoidance.
For one thing, it's hard to find a human being who isn't frantically working his or her thumb over the keypad on a mobile communications device.
"

Just thinking about my (highly connected) close friends I can also already see the first signs of the rising tide.
A few days ago I witnessed the displeasure and sheer anguish of a friend who had been called by someone dear on her mobile and could not call back right away, due to a network failure.
Another fleeting moment of enlightenment was caused by a conversation around the way we have turned almost all of our interstitial moments into points of contact with other people.

I call most of my friends and my parents while driving home from work, a shared habit that a British colleague has recently associated with his mother asking him "where are you off to" whenever he calls her.
I suddenly realized how many of my social links rely on my mobile phone and its ability to turn my daily commute into a diluted version of a dinner together.
Often even a flight of stairs usually translates into a quick call.
These common episodes show that we not only already expect people to be always-on, just like data, but also that the awareness that we can access anybody, anytime, anywhere has driven a perception of time that resembles that of the ever present.
We live in the now.

What kind of relationships can be developed in interstitial, liminal times and spaces, to use Anne Galloway's words?
Will we end up living our social lives between applications, like a SETI screen-saver, using the time left by our exceeding processing power?
How long will it take to build trust, or even love for always-on people?
How will we over-clock our social processors?
How well do you already know the names and numbers stored on your devices?
Continuous partial effort

Looking for signs of the disease you only need to observe pages like this very one a bit closer.
Yes, Weblogs.
Their evolution these days seems to follow a path that I would dub "from Thinklogs to Linklogs".
To make a long story short, quite a few influential Webloggers have lately started stripping the links contained in their posts of all the linguistic tissue that used to hold them together.
Read: their ideas.
Some keep the most updated links in a "special post" that gets frequently republished.
Others have been looking at ways to automate the way links are published on their pages.
I've also noticed a number of people who often post to themselves, increasingly relying on connectivity to freeze in time all that they canít possibly read on the fly, or remember afterwards.
Some have just started to show signs of weariness.

Even though most of the examples above can be simply seen as first steps towards toned-down Glogs, I fear they also say a lot about the high potential for impoverishment that underlies a world of "always-on" people.
A powerful mix of Information and Interaction Anxiety at work.
A world where the time between "I need to read this" and "I need to tell the world about it" has been flattened, like merged layers in Photoshop.

The information produced by simply tracking where people wander online is more akin to raw information than to processed knowledge.
It's the difference between a travel guide and an un-ordered list of places to visit.
Travel books, when well written, convey the excitement of the discovery and a sense of shared exploration.
Try to imagine Bruce Chatwin's books, stripped of all the little mental and physical steps that took his feet from one place to the next.
What would remain is a collection of pictures of someone else's trip, with no context to make them meaningful for anyone else other than the person who took them in the first place.
Breadcrumbs to nowhere.

Just like anyone else maintaining one of these pages I will attest to the effort it takes to update regularly and meaningfully a Blog, but once more the real value in this case is in the path and not in the destination.
How much care and time-consuming dedication does it take to ease others into unknown lands rather than just pointing the way and letting them find their own?
Will we still have the time to be guides, travel mates?
Or will The Network itself provide the missing answers?

Will we learn to ask others to replace us in shaping what we have no time to create?


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