How long will it be until we are so connected and integrated with technology that we can no longer separate ourselves from it? It’s no secret that smartphones have changed the way we live. Most of us are never more than a few feet away from our phones for more than a few minutes a day. Our phones are often the first thing we see in the morning and the last thing we see before we close our eyes for the night. We look at our phones at least dozens of times per day, maybe hundreds for some of us. This is already having detrimental effects on our productivity and can be disruptive to our human relationships. Who hasn’t seen a couple on a date at a nice restaurant just staring at their phones instead of engaging each other in conversation?
We’re checking our work email when we’re not at work and we’re scrolling Facebook while we’re using the bathroom. We’re always connected and connecting, posting pictures of our meals on Instagram and livestreaming even our most mundane activities. The extent to which we do this has a generational component - how many Boomers are on Snapchat? - but this always-on, always-connected lifestyle isn’t limited to the under-30 crowd.
At some point, it seems like people are going to want to a break from all this connectivity and technology, even the Digital Natives who grew up with it and don’t even remember a time without cell phones or social media. Until recently, I’ve been convinced that we’re going to see the rise of “tech-free” resorts where you check your phone in at check-in and there’s no wifi or any other technology introduced in the last 50 years. This would allow guests to free themselves, albeit temporarily, from the grasp of all-watching, all-consuming technology in their lives and allow them some time just to experience life, unaltered and un-enhanced. This temporary disconnection could yield some much needed clarity and focus. Think of times that you are forced to disconnect, like when you take a shower. Remember flying back when your phone had to stay off and there was no wifi? You had no choice but to disconnect, and many great ideas were conceived during those times of forced disconnection. The more I thought about it though, I began to realize... Those days are over. We’re going to be connected for life.
We’re entering a future where we’ll be so intractably tethered to technology that even a temporary break will be literally impossible. In the next 5-10 years, we’ll have devices in or on our persons that are constantly monitoring all aspects of our health and activities. If you had an embedded device or devices that all but guaranteed your good health, would you be willing to turn them off or remove them? Would your employer, insurer, or your spouse even let you?
And what happens when what our technology enables us to do and experience is so compelling that we won’t be able to give it up, even for a few hours? Near-future versions of technologies like virtual and augmented reality, and AI companions will make today’s smartphone addictions look decidedly tame. Imagine having the ability to instantly “travel” anywhere or connect with anyone in a virtual space. What if you were alerted to the growth of deadly cancer within minutes of your cells beginning to mutate? The scope of our near-future augmentation and connection is almost unfathomable today, but it all-but-guarantees that it won’t be long before we’ll have neither the desire nor ability to fully disconnect.
The effects on our lives and society of this constant connection will be profound and far-reaching. What will it do to us psychologically to never not know, to have near-complete information on anything, all the time? What about privacy? Will the concept of privacy itself change or disappear? Are people going to be happier or will our technology be a weight that we must carry for life? Will we even remember life in analog?
While many of these advancements and technologies will happen whether we like it or not, we are certainly not helpless passengers on the train of technology with no choice but to adopt every new device or service. Some may even choose to fully disconnect before they get “bought in” so much that they can’t disengage. People who don’t have a cell phone or a Facebook account today may find themselves seeking an even less technology-influenced life in the future. In fact, in ten years there may be little middle ground - you’ll either be a farmer with only the most minimal technology or you’ll have the latest of everything and be fully connected to whatever systems and services we have then. Neither extreme will guarantee happiness, and ultimately we'll all have the responsibility to weigh the pros and cons of each new technology that would connect us in yet another way. We need to start thinking about the potential impacts and outcomes of a life where we can never disconnect. Will you fully embrace this possible new reality or will you resist being always connected?