Helping front office teams grow better

What tech does to us - #364

Twice a week, I ride the train to Boston. My commute starts with a quick walk to the suburban station near my house, after forty minutes on the commuter rail, I either walk a mile or jump on the trolley to East Cambridge. The people watching is varied: sometimes it's townies heading to the big city for a day, there are some high school kids heading to school, and you get quite a few tourists. On the train, though, it's mostly commuters. We're a quiet bunch. Unless you sit with your friends, you're usually reading, sleeping, or staring off into space.

When the tech people talk about augmented reality, I like to think us commuter rail riders were there first. We've used books and newspapers to escape the monotony of a daily two hours on the train for centuries. The laptop and the smart phone may have made the passing of the time easier, but we still look out the same window at the same scene for much of the time. More than half of us have audio experience entirely separate from the train noise. Our headphones have played books on tape since the literal days of tapes.

The people tend to get louder as the commuter rail gets closer to the city. No longer are the people reading newspapers and taking a nap: they're talking to their friends. And, in a shocking twist, they're listening to things from their phones, but not via the socially appropriate headphones, they're playing noise through speakers. It's like how Elf spreads Christmas cheer: the best way to ruin a train ride is playing anything loud enough for all to hear. When you ask these folks to turn their noise off, they look at you like you are an angry middle-aged guy from the suburbs, which you are, but that's beside the point: why do people think it's ok to blast noise?

While you could blame people for being rude, I see these speaker-users more as victims than perpetrators. They're the same as the people at the park using their Bluetooth headsets to hold conference calls: the technology turns them into the worst possible versions of themselves. When I was a kid, the guy talking to himself at the park was a reason to run home to your parents; now, the guy talking to himself at the park is probably the most successful businessman there. He could be the mayor!

The people who made the Bluetooth headsets and the people who added speakers to the supercomputers in our hands probably weren't trying to ruin our time at the park or on the commuter rail, but in my view they're more than a little complicit. People's behavior is more than just nudged by their technology: I am far more apt to ignore my kids when my smartphone is in the room. 

This idea of what our technology does to us is worth chasing. The reading this week is a few interesting stories about just that. The first piece is about how people observe the thinking of their enemies; the second piece is about how pornography sits in the current iteration of the American Dream; and the last piece shows what tech (TV, really) does to my old favorite sport. Before we watch, read, and listen, we ought to ask ourselves: what does this tech do to us?


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