Is digital engagement committing technocide?

Not so long ago a leading executive in the events industry sat down at a breakfast table and asked his supplier “What’s the future of technology in the events industry. What’s the next big thing?”

The question was the result of him seeing the amount of people visiting his events who were looking at a screen. “How”, he asked, “do we harness technology to make our events better”.

Like many organisers he was employing apps for the use of exhibitors and visitors to increase “noise” around their events. Inadvertently he was, like many organisers, committing technocide by supporting technological detachment.

Little by little, mobile technology and social media seems to be subtly destroying the meaning of interactions that people have with others, disconnecting us from the world around us and leading to an imminent sense of isolation.

Organisers, by employing mobile technology – pre-show and at-show – are unwittingly killing human interaction, the very thing an event is designed to do.

Using text, instant messaging and social media may be simpler, but ten texts can’t even begin to equal time chatting at a trade show and a smiley-face emoticon is cute, but it can never replace the ear-splitting grin and smiling eyes of an exhibitor or visitor.

There is a special quality about face-to-face      interactions. You can catch the subtle tone in a voice, see an expression as it changes from sad to outraged and look someone in the eye to see if you trust them.

There’s something intangibly real and valuable about talking with someone face to face. This is significant for events. That sales lead or

exhibitor interaction becomes an important existing human connection, not just someone whose disembodied text voice pops up on your cell phone, iPad or computer screen.

It seems we have more extended connections than ever in this digital world, which can be great for networking, if it’s used right. The sad fact of the matter is that most of us don’t. It’s hard to keep up with hundreds of “friends”, let alone ten. At that point, do we even remember names?

Past evolutionary psychology research by British anthropologist and psychologist Robin Dunbar revealed that people are actually limited to a certain number of stable, supportive connections with others in their social network, roughly 150. Furthermore, recent follow-up research by Cornell University’s Bruno Goncalves used Twitter data to show that despite the current ability to connect with vast amounts of people via the Internet, a person can still only truly maintain a friendship with a maximum of 100 to 200 real friends in their social network.

That breakfast executive used the example of the “yoof” of today having a cell phone or iPod in hand at the ready as the default mode while walking the streets. That “default” just means much less chance of conversation with the

people who populate their real lives.

Take time out at a trade event and watch how many people are on their phone reading text messages or check voicemails as they walked around, whether they had people nearby or not. What was once something that was done in

private or during downtime has now become an obsession. It seems that we all need to find out what else is going on at other locations, to the detriment of the current situation happening right there in front of them.

The unspoken subtext of checking text messages in front of others is: “Somewhere else there is someone who I care about more than you. I want to know what they have to say more than what you have to say to me now.” The idea of being present in the moment is disappearing faster than you can say, “Hey, I’ve got to take this call…”. We devalue our current situation, our surroundings and setting, for something going on somewhere else.

There have even been studies showing that cell phones are causing the same problems as other addictive behavior. According to a Japanese study found that children and teenagers with cell phones often won’t make friends with others who don’t have cell phones. Plus, a British study of college students found that 7% of students had lost a relationship or job due to cell phone usage.

That’s a warning sign that we as an industry are giving in to our electronic tether, our techno-fetishes, and putting more faith in them than in our own real-world offerings. More electronic communication means less face-to-face conversations, and we’ll have generations of people who are more comfortable texting than talking in person. Being constantly connected to gadgets is akin to what psychologists called a dissociative disorder. Dissociation generally means not being connected and in its extreme form is the hallmark of true mental illness.

Others are quick to counter that technology has actually made us more connected to people rather than just disconnected with our present situation. Some say the idea of cell phones destroying face-to-face interactions is a bit of “techno-reactionism”. Perhaps, but it has to be asked will the long-term effects of event organisers, by employing technology for the sake of employing technology, devalue events. Most people don’t long to be in the company of people who are constantly connected to someone or something else. Smart phones allow people to be connected to the Internet for sports scores, news and weather updates, all at your fingertips, no matter what your situation.

While technology has allowed us some means of social connection that would have never been possible before, and has allowed us to maintain long-distance relationships that would have otherwise probably fallen by the wayside, the fact remains that it is causing ourselves to spread ourselves too thin, as well as slowly ruining the quality of social interaction that events are all about. Let’s make the relationships that count last, and not rely on technology to do the job for us.

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