In the 19th-century, the Ludittes famously objected to steam-powered manufacturing, the technology of the day: they made their feelings clear by breaking mill machines. Of late I have started to think of this as representative of something that every generation goes through at some point or another: questioning the net value of new technology.

Over the last 12-months I have been witness to some alarming developments in the way individuals use technology. This dawned on me when I started noticing more and more restaurant-goers ignoring their friends and family in favour of interacting with their smartphones. At its worst this is manifest in a group of diners all steadfastly ignoring each other as they negotiate their individual digital worlds. I guess they might be playing an online game together, but then why bother with dinner? Whilst this is bad enough, I have seen this trend invade the most intimate of relationships: travelling on the train one day I witnessed a very attractive woman gazing intently into the eyes of her man. Rather than returning the gaze, he was frantically playing a shoot-’em-up game on his phone, which he had managed to squeeze into the small space between their faces. When people start choosing digital over intimate, I think we have a problem. These ideas are nicely expressed in some street art I saw in Sai Kung recently (see the thumbnail above, click to enlarge).

As a teacher of ICT, and as a parent, these developments give me a lot of food for thought. Of course, my own son is very easily and deeply engaged in the latest multimedia gizmo: why would he not be? And certainly my students need reminding to put their tech away and focus on human interaction. More to the point, I realise that I am not immune from this myself, often prioritising digital work ahead of face-to-face social interaction (isn’t there just too much to get done?). But where and how do we find the balance needed to remain healthy, grounded and connected to reality? And how do we help our students to see doing so as something positive.

Looking forward, where might these cultural and consumption trends this lead us? Perhaps to a place where being digital becomes more interesting than reproduction, in which case we certainly will be in trouble. Are we running the risk of turning our lives into a digital circus, punctuated by the odd intrusion of reality? Playing devil’s advocate, does it really matter at all, or is all this change just an accelerated form of business as usual? Haven’t things always changed? Is not everything we value merely a construct we have learned to love?

I don’t for a minute doubt the value of information technology, in fact, to the contrary, I often marvel at what it brings to our lives. Yet I can’t help but wonder if all of our devices are becoming just a little too personal.

Note: Having put these thoughts down, and shared them with others, it is now time to put the technology away and enjoy an evening with family.