More Public Spaces Should Block Phone Signals

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The thing about phones today is that they’re not just phones, are they? They’re sophisticated computers that open up all kinds of opportunities for entertainment, collaboration and innovation.

However, research is showing that they can also be doorways into a world of distraction.

In Britain, a debate has opened up as to whether or not we would benefit if some public spaces actually blocked signals from smartphones and the internet.

The owners of at least one British pub have done just that, recognising the impact of digital gadgets on human interaction.

A new bar in East Sussex is stopping phone signals in an effort to prevent people being distracted by their mobiles. The Gin Tub in Hove has installed a copper Faraday cage in the ceiling, which deflects signals.

While it’s illegal in the UK to jam phone and internet signals from transmitting from their source, it’s permissible to block them from entering one’s own home or establishment.

Steve Tyler, one of the owners of the Gin Tub, says he’s done it so that people will enjoy themselves more.

Not too long ago, 20 percent of British divorce cases were citing Facebook as a contributing factor in marriage breakdown. People often invest more time and energy in remote relationships via technology than they do in contact with their partners.

This is problem is now recognised by psychologists as “absent presence”. It affects all types of human tribes.

You may have six people gathered around a table at home, in a restaurant or at work, but only half of them are actually joining in the conversation; others are engaged in cyberspace through their phones.

Conversely, while this problem is growing, leading high-tech companies are looking for ways to form innovation hubs – physical communities that promote and support innovation.

These companies – among them some of Europe’s major game-design outfits – recognise that a growing drive for high-tech also brings with it a greater need for high-touch.

Sharing ideas, projects and even values is an inherently social thing. To some degree, we need physical proximity to pull it off.

In the workspace, studies suggest a growth in another phenomenon called “time starvation”. People feel unable to switch off after work because they’re anchored to their work via the internet and their phones and tablets.

This inability to leave work behind often carries with it higher levels of anxiety, guilt and restlessness, all of which are costing American business an estimated $40 billion per year in lost productivity.

Meanwhile, a greater engagement with digital gadgets and particularly social media platforms is leading to social disinhibition.

The rather cumbersome name refers to the fact that people will sometimes say things online that they wouldn’t dare say offline.

Last year, a study found that two percent 2000 Brits said they had insulted someone they didn’t know online in the last year. These people were not trolls; just average folks who felt freer to be insulting in the cybersphere than they would in real life.

Two percent of 2000 people doesn’t sound like much, but if it could be extrapolated across the entire nation, it would mean that one million people were insulting people they  didn’t know online. Digital connections can help build or maintain relationships, but they can also help destroy social cohesion.

Another challenge presented by digitisation is the growing tendency for people to build transactional relationships with machines.

My wife and I have been married for 36 years this month. Over the years, we have formed a transactional partnership.

We each tend to specialise in different forms of everyday information. We each remember different things and perform certain everyday tasks better than the other. Combining our interests, skills and natural tendencies allows us to get things right, at least some of the time.

There is growing evidence that a similar phenomenon is emerging in the way each of us treats digital gadgets and their connection to the Cloud. We don’t remember what we read on the internet, we store in on platforms like Evernote and Pocket and rely on machines to remember it for us.

Because the information is not being stored in long-term human memory, it is of no use in producing future innovation. New ideas are always born out of connections between old (stored) ideas.

Smartphones and tablets may soon be among the least of our concerns, however. The challenges posed by increased digitisation are more than matched by those that will likely arise with automation.

Visit a phone store or hotel in Tokyo these days and you’ll likely find a smartbot waiting to welcome you. These are highly sophisticated robots which are programmed to biometrically “read” your emotional condition and to emulate or respond to it.

Similar though slightly less refined machines have been in use in Japanese aged care homes for some time. Their empathic programming allows them to provide a level of comfort to people who suffer from feelings of confusion, loneliness and other symptoms of dementia.

In a study a few years ago, a large majority of the clients in these homes said that they preferred the robotic “carers” to the human variety.

Automation in the home and workspace and on the roads will open some exciting doors. It may reduce mundane tasks, allowing us more time to engage with work we enjoy. It might also give us the chance to realise our ideas more quickly, thus freeing time for greater levels of innovation.

We may also find ourselves enjoying a wider range of work relationships, particularly as Industry 4.0 leads us into smart factories and offices, where people working remotely are more intrinsically linked to each other via the internet.

Automation, however, will also have a huge impact on the number of jobs available to us. Yes, it is historically true that new types of jobs have usually emerged to replace at least some of those left behind by industrial or technological progress.

However, the emergence of “smart industries” may mean that the pace of change is faster than we are expecting and preparing for.

According to a study released by the British House of Lords, as many as 35 percent of the nation’s jobs may be lost to automation in the next twenty years.

People will need help to retrain for new jobs – in entirely different sectors of industry – much  more quickly than they do today.

In the near future, governments, businesses and third sector groups will need to work together to provide basic mental healthcare facilities for workers who are becoming redundant.

When workers transition from one form or job to another, they stand to lose more than their income. They often lose comradeship and, most importantly, their sense of story. One study suggests that, on average, it takes two years for people to reinvent a personal narrative, based at least in part around their work.

We cannot necessarily solve problems before they arise. The future is uncertain; its challenges may not be exactly the ones we anticipate, at least in terms of the finer details.

Yet we can begin to learn the basic lessons of how humans might better engage with new technologies – starting with those we now have before us.

In this respect, having selected public spaces shutting down mobile phone signals might not be such a negative development.

School study zones might benefit from blocking systems. Various reputable studies have revealed that attention spans are being depleted by digital distraction – as are retention rates.

Office boardrooms might also benefit from being digital-free zones. One study suggested that 20 percent of British workers respond to an average of 50 emails each day from their co-workers alone.

Where do they find the time and energy to engage with customers and others outside the enterprise, when their attention is distracted by a constant stream of internal memos?

Recently, the Bank of America conducted a study which revealed that its most productive workers were those who mingled more. This led the bank to refashion its coffee areas, making them more inviting, so that people would leave their desks for coffee.

In a short time, this led to a 10 percent boost in productivity across the company.

Our brains need downtime, where they can assimilate what we’re learning and build it into long-term memory. If that doesn’t happen, the data we take in won’t produce new, innovative ideas for the future.

We should continue to use digital technologies to their full potential, but only insofar as they enhance our human potential. 

Hear Mal Fletcher's radio interview on this issue here. 

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