Ambient intimacy the new loneliness?

A few weeks ago I took part in the eye contact experiment in Sheffield. The purpose was to connect with a fellow human being in a way we usually avoid in modern society.

I have already wrote about the use of Mobile technology in Japan and crossed it with the selfie craze. But I have to admit although the selfie/narcissism was bad. There was a low level almost ambient undertone to the silence of people looking at rectangular LCD screen.

Japan is always known as way ahead of the curve. When most of us were still using desktops and laptops to connect the internet, residents of Japan were using their phones. Theres many other examples but I spotted something which deeply worries me. Sherry Turkle’s connected alone was playing out everywhere you went.

I was in the queue for a rollercoaster and 4 guys were standing in silence through out the whole 40-50min queue. There were each transfixed to their phones not uttering a single word till we finally got on the ride and then they were best buds, laughing and chatting away. I saw them again later (the theme park wasn’t that busy and isn’t that big – about the size of Thorpe Park) and it was more of the same.  They may have been playing the same game but together they were alone.

Alone together

Sad as it may be (you could say its part of the Japanese culture, but I’m not so sure), you are seeing more and more of this. And its not just a age thing. The online world can be very seductive and some people forget the offline world for many reasons. Maybe things are difficult there, things are not going so well, they can be somebody else?

Sounds familiar right? Some people have been calling it ambient intimacy, something I heard a lot time ago but hadn’t really stop and thought about.

I  forgot the term, which I saw as the logical conclusion of what I saw in Japan and seeing to a lesser degree here. I first wrote about it when listening to Leisa Reichelt talking at the future of webapps 2007.

This thought catalogue piece sums up quite a bit is the new loneliness

Our generation of sadness and loneliness is of the unchecked variety. Of wallowing. Of letting ourselves be disconnected from both others and ourselves. Learning to soothe more than heal. Learning to put a band-aid on problems instead of working through and solving our problems. If something is not immediate, we don’t want it, even if it’ll make us stronger. We’re not growing as people, not really. We’re shoving away “bad feelings” we don’t want to face by clicking, refreshing, scrolling until we’ve numbed ourselves out enough. It’s addiction.

I was talking to a friend recently and she was telling me about the massive effect grindr is having on the gay men of Manchester. The once vibrant gay village of canal street is now full of hen parties and hetrosexual men chasing them. The gay men so addicted to the new reality of grindr, they don’t waste time meeting/socialising down canal street, when there is a sea of faces and other parts of the body on the comfort of your screen. Of course there is human contact but its short lived, fleeting but also highly charged and very exciting.  If its not, don’t worry theres other fields to go explore and why not?

This is something I talked about during my ragged talk.

In years, decades to come will we see the ambient intimacy the same way as we see smoking now? Or if Adrian Hon is right, eating meat?

I’m confident that in a hundred years, eating meat will be regarded in the negative way we now view racism or sexism – an ugly, demeaning, and unnecessary act. Like smoking, it will simply fall out of fashion because we’ll find better and healthier alternatives, although we’ll still occasionally eat humanely reared-and-killed animals. Note that I still eat meat even though I should know better.

If there was one picture which sums up this slow backlash, it has to be this one… removed.


As the author says…

The joining of people to devices has been rapid and unalterable. The application of the personal device in daily life has made tasks take less time. Far away places and people feel closer than ever before. Despite the obvious benefits that these advances in technology have contributed to society, the social and physical implications are slowly revealing themselves.

I saw it a while ago but frank reminded me of the picture while we were talking about the eye contact event.

There was a number of talks at Thinking Digital Manchester which strayed deep into this area., including our own workshop.  Authenticity was the word of the moment. Be yourself and talk with a human voice. Something the Cluetrain Manifesto talks a lot about.

I have bounced back and forth and about this whole thing, creating many revisions (62 to be honest) and drafts of this blog post.

Part of me wonders if this is just the new reality and I’m actually just getting old?

Who couldn’t be excited by the new possibilities to be connected to many people at the same time? Jason Silva called itcollapsing geography with cellphone wormholes. However this also pulls us out of the moment (must finish reading Douglas Rushkoff’s Present Shock) creating physical barriers with the people we spending time with. Maybe its the intent or even the lack of intent which is the problem?

Like checking your phone at the table, your subconscious intent is that the current situation isn’t interesting enough to fully engage? Or a sign we feel strangely lonely?  The fear of missing out is a double edged sword, and is a really strong motivator in this all. Then throw in the paradox of choice and you have a recipe for long term problems. This is what I thought when I first heard the term present shock to be honest.

Mozfest Global Village

This was some of the motivation behind a short pathway of two great sessions at Mozfest 2015. Hacking Mental Health: Changing Views in Tech and Happiness in the digital era. (reminds me of  The Practice of Happiness workshop by Bobby Paterson at Thinking Digital 2011). We even ran our own eye contact experiment in the crazy space of Mozfest.

Eye contact at Mozfest Global Village

With all this playing on my mind (and the fact its a link between all the events over the last few weeks)…

I bought a copy of Alone Together and Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. I decided enough with the drafts, I’m putting this thought on hold for a further blog post or maybe a discussion some day?

Author: Ianforrester

Senior firestarter at BBC R&D, emergent technology expert and serial social geek event organiser.

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