The year 2013 is rocketing off to a great start, especially in the field of technological advances. From medical marvels like a ‘functionally cured’ HIV-positive baby and 3D printers in regenerative medicine, to wearable technology like the reported Apple’s iWatch and Samsung smartwatches; it is a time even your grandparents should be excited about.

However, in the midst of this huge leap in urban progression (not just intelligent objects capable of predictive personalization) and the constant information bombardment of “NEW! NEW! NEW!” arrives one trade-off in human communication: the disappearance of old.

2013 is the year where we lost the art of conversation and undivided attention.

With the contraption of smartphones combined with the penetration of social media popularity, the attention span—once exclusive to human interaction and hobbies—has suffered greatly under these domineering digital ecosystems. An era where conversations, let alone a meeting, lasting over few minutes will see the uncomfortable shifting of eyes, agreeable “hmm’s” and finally, the urge in thrusting of hands into deep pockets, fishing out phones and checking notifications. Perhaps in the near future, we will literally be paying for attention.

Google Glass, the latest tech product to spawn from the digital landscape, is the next driving force to further reduce (or eliminate) our already-dying attention span.

Touted as the product in “getting technology out of the way,” it is essentially an augmented reality system blurring the lines between our real lives with our digital ones. While it holds many potentially life-changing uses like these, the worry and fear remains of the day where every conversation requires zero attention. Will that be the worry for the older generation or the new? Only time can tell.

“Human beings have developed a new problem since the advent of the iPhone and the following mobile revolution: no one is paying attention to anything they’re actually doing. Everyone seems to be looking down at something or through something. Those perfect moments watching your favorite band play or your kid’s recital are either being captured via the lens of a device that sits between you and the actual experience, or being interrupted by constant notifications. Pings from the outside world, breaking into what used to be whole, personal moments.” Via The Verge

The barrage of real-time feeds constantly pushing information in front of your face is by no means “getting technology out of the way,” but rather “getting people out of the way”. It is just impossible to ignore, especially when everything online these days are made and optimized for sharing. To make things worse, this decline of attention is merely a fraction of the digital age’s problem. Think privacy concerns, identity thefts, real-time information overload and activity disruption (eg. calling while driving). By going through this digital tunnel where everything around is made to chip away at your attention, one can only emerge at the end as a distracted (and possibly rude) person.

What happens then if Google Glass were to be introduced here in Asia, where the social media assimilation is massive?

“There are now well over 1 billion Internet users around Asia • At least 811 million of these people use social media • 50% of the world’s social media users are in Asia • More than 10 million new people in Asia join Facebook every month • Asia is home to more than 3 billion mobile subscriptions.

All of these numbers are significantly higher than those we reported in the previous edition of the #SDMW series that we released back in November 2011: The number of Internet users in the region has grown by almost 14% • Users of the top social network in each country around Asia have increased by more than 8% • Mobile subscriptions have seen growth of more than 12%.

It’s not just the growth in user numbers that are impressive; netizens in Asia spend almost 2 million years of combined time on the Internet every month, watching almost 45 billion online videos.”

Via We Are Social

It is a common sight here in the peak hours of the Singaporean daily commute, to observe the sea of people plugged in their own worlds with the latest tech in their hands. Be it catching up on their K-dramas, Candy Crush-ing or mass texting, combined with the growing addiction in owning the latest fashionable hardware (iPads, Galaxy S4, Blackberries etc.), it is not surprising when the very first tech-addiction psychiatric treatment is developed here in Asia.

Having said all that, we should not mistake these digital changes to be an Orwellian future, as social mediums and new age digital technology do carry a positive outlook too, such as these. It is the leveraging of surrounding technological assets to foster, teach, promote and innovate a creative ground, easily and accessible to en masse. What we have and how we choose to use it largely depends on the fundamental environment the people are brought up in. Hammers in the hands of carpenters cultivate creators, while hammers in the hands of bullies breed criminals.

The days of meaningful human communication may be nearing its end, whether we like it or not. We should be cautious on the path on which we are treading if we intend to continue preserving anthropological aspects that make us respectful humans—not as walking machines and digital advertising spaces. In the years to come, we will all be talking (hopefully face-to-face) about the good old days when dinner meal conversations went undisturbed by phones.

Neville Hew
Neville is a designer working with brands.
Neville Hew
Neville Hew

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