The CEO of a UK telecoms company has penned a tongue-in-cheek but, at heart, serious piece about the ways in which modern technology can inhibit communications as well as foster them. Martyn Warwick reports.
A few of you out there might remember that aging popster Cliff Richard topped the charts back in the late summer of 1979 with a catchy little number called "We don't talk any more".
Thirty three years later it seems that while everybody is talking at one another over mobile devices, landlines, sofware-based comms services, social media and good old email, the very ubiquity of those comms technologies is affecting the way we interact with one another on a personal face-to-face level, particularly at work and in other work-related (and social) contexts.
Nigel Walker, the CEO of Ardencom, a telecoms company based in the English Midlands that provides comms solutions to a client base predominantly comprising SMEs and small corporate customers, says, "I recently attended a seminar on Social Media, run by one of our network suppliers."
"The whole event was extremely well organised; trendy venue, spot-on catering, slick timing and well chosen guest speakers who knew their specialist area like, well, like the back of their handhelds. But during the day, something struck me as the pinnacle of irony. We were there to learn all they could teach us in eight hours about the art of communication via social media. However the paradox overwhelmed me after returning from the morning coffee break to the conference room where my fellow delegates were sitting 'communicating' with some absent other - who knows who? - who knows where? What they were not doing was communicating with anyone else present at that table."
He continued, "In the 'good old days', before iPads and tablets, laptops and smart phones, we would have introduced ourselves and struck up some sort of 'communication' with each other. As it happens, I spent eight hours in a room full of people and came away not knowing any of their names, what company they worked for, whether they were married with kids or single with money (obviously I'm in the former camp, hence I know the difference)."
And what Nigel Walker is complaining about in jest, is in fact of serious concern. His light-hearted complaint throws light on a widespread malaise borne of our apparent willingness to make ourselves slaves to the electronic communications machine whilst neglecting people around us. It's the same everywhere. Here at the TelecomTV offices people will insist on emailing colleagues who are sitting less than six feet away.
As Mr. Walker points out, "I spent a whole day not learning anything about the people I had spent it with, other than, through my powers of observation, whether they had a preference for Blackberry over iPhone or Android and iPad or tablet over laptop. The silence was strangely eerie. Even people I vaguely recognised from other industry events were engrossed in their silent conversations via their choice of electronic medium.
Not one of them was even bothering to phone for a voice conversation, it was all done by keypad or touch screen."
One might have thought that as the CEO of a telecoms company he would be delighted to see so many people using so many of the devices that he sells for a living, but he admits to missing "the warmth of the handshake, the reassurance of a smile, the trustworthiness of eye contact and the chatter and laughter that normally energises a room full of people."
It is also significant that the ages of the people at the seminar ranged from the mid-twenties to mid-fifties so our apparent preference for cyberspace over reality is not necessarily an age-related thing even though our own observations tell us that many of the social niceties that characterised the Britain of yesteryear are now as dead as the dodo.
They have been killed off by the first generation of mobile users who are by now well into their 40s and some of whose number are becoming the monosyllabic, sociopathic denizens of C-suites around the world. Then there is the 30-something generation that followed them and not only aped their elder's behaviour but "improved" and "enhanced" it to the levels we now see practiced every day on the street, in restaurants, bars, cinemas, theatres, on public transport, in church services, on country walks and so on. It no longer matters what the surroundings may be, social context is simply ignored as electronic communications, anytime, anyplace, anywhere, supercede polite interaction with the immediate environment and the people in it.
Then come the 20-somethings and the massed phalanxes of grunting teenagers whose public behaviour all too often beggars description. It really is disturbing.
And, even as I write, human physiology is adapting. In are coming the big, fat spatulate thumbs to enable super-fast texting, the neckbones canted down and fused together at the exact angle to enable us to gaze at little display screens until we go blind, the huge burger and beer bellies that allow other drones to bounce off us more or less unharmed as we wander the streets mumbling to ourselves and walking under buses, lost in our own little world of me, me, me and whoever I am 'interacting' with in cyberspace. And as for real people, well... f€*k 'em.
I spoke with Nigel Walker yesterday afternoon. He said, "We have such a range of amazing communications technology at our command but sometimes it can actually makes it harder for us to communicate rather than easier. What I learned at that seminar was that social media isn't necessarily always very sociable. We have to take command the technology and devices and use them as specialist tools appropriate to a particular set of circumstances not a blunt instrument that stuns us all into collective silence when we should be dealing, and communicating meaningfully, with one another in a face-to-face context."
Amen to that.
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