Alone Surrounded by People

E. M Forester wrote a novella entitled “The Machine Stops” long before people thought about social media. The story describes a time in the future when everyone is isolated in their own homes but still connected to each other via a wall size display screen. People live their lives through their interactions with the machine. Forester goes on to describe the isolation people feel when the machine finally fails.

The New York Times recently published a review of a new book about how teens use social media. The book seems to be filled with the usual generalizations one would expect when describing an entire generation. Still, the review made me think about Forester and about how teens are using social media such as Instagram and Twitter. Apparently many of them are now deserting Facebook since the older generations have finally taken the plunge. Who wants to go to a place that’s so uncool that Dad and Mom reside there?

What strikes me is that it’s hard for teens to physically get together, particularly before they are old enough to drive on their own. Where can they go? We see malls filled with teens, but only until security people begin to roust them in fear that older shoppers will flee. Fast food places? Managers there don’t want teens and tweens congregating and occupying tables for hours after purchasing only a Coke and fries.

So, teens and subteens communicate now via social media. They spill out what’s happening in their lives almost on a minute by minute basis. “Reading XYZ and on page 42. Great read so far!” Friends provide instant feedback. If a teen reports he or she is sad about something, friends chime in with support. Of course, there’s aways the possibility that a bully will take the opportunity via social media to attack someone when they are most vulnerable.

So, symbols of various emotions color a teen’s tweets and Instagram descriptions. Communities and sub-communities form. It’s really quite a complex web if you think about it. I once knew an adult who was carrying on six or seven different concurrent instant message sessions. That pales in contrast to the number of social media interactions teens and subteens are carrying on.

Facebook has been looking at artificial intelligence software that can analyze not just faces but also social interactions. Corporations are salivating at the possibility of analyzing teen and sub-teen social interactions and determining buying behavior so that they can target advertising.

I wrote an unpublished novel once entitled “A Thousand Voices in My Head”. It described a time when companies would identify a person by their IP address and attached buying patterns. People routinely would have chips embedded in their heads that gave them 24-hour Internet connectivity. As people neared stores, these stores would broadcast targeted messages such as “Your favorite detergent now is on sale” or “We’re offering you a 25% discount at your favorite clothing store, only five minutes from your current location.”

So, I see a time in the not too distant future when teens and subteens will find their social media territory overrun by greedy adults who want to take advantage of the opportunity to sell to a captive audience. I almost feel like whispering to teens, “enjoy your friends and your time communicating together now, because in the future you’ll probably wind up having to communicate around dozens of targeted ads.” Just mention a pizza in your message, and suddenly you’ll find a targeted pizza ad. Talk about having sex, and a condom ad will appear. Big brother will be watching, and he’s out to make a fast buck.


Writing for Silicon Valley Readers

The New York Times Magazine has a long article written by a young Harvard intern working in Silicon Valley. The gist of the article is that there is a huge gulf between the young and the old as well as between the young companies and established companies. Young people in the 20’s feel they have little in common with older workers; hence, these older workers rarely apply. As the author points out, what older worker would want to spend a weekend bar crawling with colleagues in their twenties?

The author goes on to also point out that very rarely an older company retains a sense of coolness that still attracts the young. So, Apple is cool while Cisco and Microsoft are not cool or cool places to work. The startups attract young people willing to work endless hours and live on junk food.

Now let me add my two cents. I think very often it is easy to fall in love with technology or apps and lose sight of what is needed. Do we really need yet one more new app on our phones to prioritize our daily schedule? What about another dating app? Many twenty somethings in Silicon Valley and in other hotbeds of technology turn to dating apps because they simply don’t have time to go about seeking partners the traditional way.

What about reading? I get the feeling that outside of non-fiction including bios and stories of tech figures who became rich, a large portion of the tech-savvy twenty somethings in Silicon Valley don’t read much and certainly don’t read much fiction. It’s funny, though, because Hollywood writers spend so much time and movie producers spend so much money developing movies set around characters who are in the twenties.

What happens when these techies hit middle age and older? Let’s assume they keep whatever reading time they have focused on very small screens such as their phones and iPads. What happens to fiction as a profitable industry? Even if it’s possible to write and produce an ebook for under a couple of hundred dollars, why bother when readers are focusing on other things?

I’m afraid that when a generation reads less fiction, it has less range of emotional experience. Why say that? A study of what happens to readers’ brains when they read shows that they actually produce the same brain patterns of people who are living through the experiences described by a writer. So, when someone reads about a character who falls in love. In effect, the reader also falls in love. When the novel describes the breakup of a romance, the reader’s brain reflects the appropriate emotional pattern of brain waves.

One way we learn to relate to a wide range of different kinds of people is by our reading experiences. Without that experience, people can become remarkably provincial. Many of us will only rarely face a situation where we have the choice to be brave and heroic or not. Yet, if we read widely, we have some definite notions about what bravery and heroism are all about. Of course we learn from movies as well, but books delve much ore with what’s happening inside us. Few moviegoers have he patience to hear a character’s interior monologue for more than a couple of minutes. Yet, we’ll read chapter after chapter of a character’s internal struggle.

Recently some Harvard students reinvented a version of Facebook, but one focusing only on helping students find other students who want to sleep with them. Users “spark” each other if they find the other person physically attractive. It saves hours of drudgery of having to meet, make small talk, get past first base, second base and third base, and try for a home run. Instead, two people just cut through all the romance and focus on the same physical goal.

Of course if people take that approach toward the opposite sex in their twenties and into their thirties, they fail to learn what it means to develop a meaningful relationship. If they haven’t taken the time to do it or even taken the time to read about characters in novels doing it, what happens when they are starting to hit forty? No longer quite attractive enough to “spark” a night of passion from someone else using the app. are they destined to spend their lives increasingly alone?

The recent movie “Her” describes a love affair of sorts between a man and his smart phone and the artificial intelligence within it. It’s a remarkable idea because it goes hand in hand with what is currently evolving in Silicon Valley. Soon this generation will go far beyond current science fiction and show us what life is like in a world where fiction is something you only read in school because it’s required and more and more people exhibit Aspergers like symptoms because they just don’t know how to relate to each other.