When I visited Japan three years ago, I was stunned to see how many people poked at their phones as they rode the trains or walked along the streets. I had heard a lot about Japan's high-tech industry, and I thought this strange phenomenon was a local quirk limited to Japan, whose society is known for its attachment to technology.
In this respect, Japan was just ahead of the curve. Now, three years later, Manhattan is no different. During my daily commute, I spend considerable effort avoiding bumping into the many people staring down at their plams. I am even occasionally guilty iWalking myself. Whenever we're bored, our phones offer an easy escape to another world of email, tweets, and blogs.
Of course, I realize I'm not pointing out anything new -- countless articles are written on this subject, many coming to different conclusions about what the new phenomena of information at our fingertips, constant connectivity, and faster computing mean for our society: we're getting stupider, we're becoming smarter, the singularity is near, etc. One of the more fun conclusions from this trend is that the reason we haven't met any aliens is because they're busy playing computer games.
I don't know where this technological progress will lead. Information technology allows science to advance at a faster and faster rate, forming a positive feedback loop. Being constantly connected is addictive, and I imagine as technology improves, this trend will get stronger and stronger. I see myriad benefits, but also some downsides. As we spend our minutes checking email and tweets, we leave fewer hours for things that are immediately less fun but ultimately more fulfilling -- like reading a long novel or even simply thinking deeply without interruption.
I got thinking about all this during my recent trip to Israel, where I didn't have the constant connectivity I am now used to. I had no iPhone reception, the internet connection in my hotel was spotty, and I even used physical maps to navigate while driving. I didn't have much chance to blog (hence the big break between posts). And even though it was a bit frustrating, in many ways it was nice to be off the proverbial digital leash.
While I think that technology, including information technology, is a big net plus for society, there's also some real danger of us ending up like those imagined aliens. I don't know if we have any power to change the course this arrow is taking, but I want to stay connected to the real world, even as I inevitably become more connected to the virtual one.
So while I'm happy you're reading this post, maybe it's time for a walk -- without your phone.