Digital bubbles: Take off your earbuds

James Barrood of the New Jersey Tech Council.

When you’re traveling, and out of your normal environment, you tend to notice some things more clearly. They stand out against a different background. If you’re fortunate, you might take those new insights and observations back home with you. For example, I was recently in Scandinavia presenting to international colleagues from academia and industry about how we nurture a great innovation ecosystem in New Jersey. There, in the region that birthed Nokia, smartphones seemed even more ubiquitous to me than they did back home — and, with them, the pernicious digital bubbles they seem to promote everywhere.

I love tech; I’ve built my career helping tech entrepreneurs and leaders; tech has and will transform many lives for the better. But I think I’m with Katy Perry on this one (as referenced in her “Chained to the Rhythm” video). I’m getting increasingly concerned about the tendency for smartphones — or, for that matter, other devices or social arrangements — to isolate us from the human interaction homo sapiens evolved to depend upon.

In Scandinavia, everyone seemed to be wearing earbuds, and — perhaps this was merely my misimpression as a stranger — once those earbuds went on, interaction with other humans seemed an unacceptable intrusion. Of course, once I was resensitized to this not-exactly-new phenomenon, it was obvious that it wasn’t just the locals. Even in tour groups from the States, plenty of people seemed to prefer interacting with devices to their human companions. Shouldn’t travel be about communicating with people? What don’t you learn when you stick with your device at the expense of fellow humans on the journey?

Perhaps you’re thinking: Well, maybe people are communicating. Maybe they’re sending texts, sharing on social media. But that’s an awful narrow portal to engage other humans through. What don’t those forms of communication tell you about body language, about what people are really thinking and feeling, about their smell and touch?

Or maybe those earbud wearers are learning something from a podcast. That’s a great new tech-enabled medium that I love as much as anyone, but it’s still one-way, carefully curated to reflect individuals’ pre-existing interests, and largely missing the serendipity and (let’s face it) risk of face-to-face conversation.

And maybe there’s no human at all on the other end of the device. Increasingly, it’s just a bot or app, or the endlessly patient and cooperative (if not always competent) Alexa or Hey Google or Siri.

The data’s still controversial, to put it mildly: Perhaps this will all turn out to be just another moral panic, yet another example of how humans are way more adaptable than we thought. Maybe we’re learning to use punctuation and emojis to squeeze a tiny bit more of our humanity into our texts and posts.

But when you consider what sure looks like a mental health crisis amongst our youth, it doesn’t seem implausible that children who continually substitute screen time and tech-mediated communication for face-to-face interaction might not get enough social connection to thrive — or enough practice to succeed with complex adult human relationships. (We’re clearly doing a colossal social experiment. And, since we’re virtually all doing it, we’re largely missing the control groups scientists need to accurately assess the true effects.)

As machine learning makes digital assistants ever more capable of responding to emotional cues, and as specialized neural networking chips increasingly find their way into smartphones, more people may be perfectly happy to choose interactions with well-engineered algorithms over messy humans. (Maybe you know someone like that already.)

But Joni Mitchell may have gotten this one right years before Katy Perry was born: “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.”

I fear that what’s “gone” might be one another.

James Barrood is CEO and president of the New Jersey Tech Council.