Our Connect to Disconnect World

Most of us have got it wrong about the background to the Olympic event known as the marathon. 

The popular telling of the story recounts a run over a distance of approximately 42 kilometres by a Greek soldier named Pheidippides from the site of the Battle of Marathon (490 BCE) to Athens where he announced a totally unexpected and yet convincing victory of the Greeks over the invading Persian army.

In fact, what really happened was the reverse. A Greek soldier named Pheidippides (still true) was sent to run from Athens to Sparta to ask for assistance against the invading Persian army beforethe battle of Marathon, not after. And yes, the Greeks did actually win an unexpected and convincing victory over the invading Persian army.

Whatever the real reason for that run and in which direction is unimportant – most of us have incorrectly learned the story of the birth of the marathon race in the modern Olympic Games due to numerous false and dramatized re-tellings of the event.

Hmmm…communication is not perfect, is it?

What isimportant is that run represents an early form of asynchronous (separated in time) communication technology in which a human runner passed on a message to others over a long distance.

From humankind’s family gatherings around a fireplace in sheltered caves somewhere in southern France 40,000 years ago to families and friends meeting up for breakfast at an outdoor restaurant on a cool winter’s day in Dubai, humans have sought to communicate with one another, sometimes to pass on information, opinion or commentary, but also to feel connected and to experience a ‘sense of belonging’.

Most of these human interactions occur synchronously (or face to face), using the full range of verbal (words, voice tone, and volume) and non-verbal channels such as facial expressions and body language.

Other forms of early asynchronous communication are cave scratchings, drawings, and paintings found in Africa (70-100,000 BCE), Asia (40,000 BCE), and in Europe (30,000 BCE). Indicative of a growing awareness of both ‘self’ and ‘spiritual’ worlds, modern humans communicated their hopes for a successful hunt by depicting images of their prey such as deer and bison on the cave walls of their homes.

Stone cairns (piles of stones now annoyingly spotted too often on popular hiking trails around the world) are also one of humankind’s first markers, perhaps indicating distance and direction to a water hole or a low crossing point along a mountain ridge.

Written communication using symbols (letters) to represent sounds and words emerged in the Middle East around 3000 BCE with symbols being chiseled into stone. It was a long time before paper arrived in 100 BCE from within the Chinese Empire, though it took different forms elsewhere in the world such as parchment (dried animal skin) and papyrus (river reeds).

Staying in ancient China, soldiers stationed along the Great Wall alerted one other of an impending enemy attack by lighting fires to create smoke signals. In this way, they could transmit a message as far away as 750 kilometres in just a few hours by signaling from tower to tower.

During the expansion of European colonial empires in the 18th century, naval ships used signaling flags to communicate from ship to ship. One of the most famous signal, well-known to all English school children, was one of the last messages sent by Vice Admiral Nelson just before the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 when he declared in fluttering flags “England expects that every man will do his duty”.

Homing pigeons are another form of communication, especially during the two world wars in the 20th century. Bearing a small message placed inside a metal canister strapped to one of the pigeon’s legs, these birds have been widely used since the days of Ancient Persia.

Then in the early 19th century, a communication revolution took place. 

The telegraph (electronic Morse code pulses sent along wires or through undersea cables) enabled an increasingly industrialized and urbanized world to communicate instantaneously across the globe. Within three decades, the invention of the modern telephone changed the world forever.

Since the arrival of wireless technology, fibre-optic cable, and the Internet in the late 20th century, humans are now super-connected in ways our ancestors could never have dreamed of. And yet, this new world of instant-anywhere wireless communication has also produced unintended consequences of isolation, dislocation, and disconnection.

Albert Einstein foresaw the problem when he was quoted in 1946 as saying that “it has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity”. While he was probably referring to the terrifying new atomic weapon used to bring the war with Japan to a rapid close, his comment nevertheless foreshadows our increasingly difficult relationship with technology right up to the present day.

I want to review four aspects of the interaction between humanity and technology which, in my opinion, have disconnected and enslaved us, and in so doing, have demeaned us as an intelligent species, seditiously and stealthily subsumed our power and control, reducing us to mere spectators rather than actors on the stage of life.

1.  Our social behaviours using mobile phones

We’ve all observed this scene, wherever we live on the planet. A family arrive at a restaurant and sit down. After the waiter hands out the menus, the parents distribute iPads to their young children, and in turn, they begin using their mobile phones. 

Silence. No one talks or looks at each another.

What are they doing? Using WhatsApp to ask each other what they intend to order?

How about this scene? Two friends are deep in conversation when one of their mobile phones ring. One friend digs into their handbag to find their phone and answers the call. The look on the face of the other friend is priceless – a mix of surprise, anger, and disappointment.

Or this one? Remember the last time you were in a crowded lift. Can you remember how many people were face-down scanning their mobile phones? No recognition or friendly nods when someone new enters the lift?

The phone has created non-communication ‘bubbles’ around individuals, silently screaming “keep away” to prevent potentially awkward interactions.

I call these interactions ‘together-alone’. They have become more noticeable over the past decade.

The impact of this disconnection and lack of phone etiquette is being felt in negative ways on families and in educational environments (primary school through to executive-level training). Due to adult mobile phone addiction, in my line of work, I elicit three agreements before the training begins: listen to one other, respect one another by returning to the training room from breaks on time, and ‘disappear’ their mobile phones – if I notice a phone being used, I simply stop talking and wait, or I wander over to the offender and stand there, silently.

Tips for reconnecting to the real world:

  • Stay connected to people with whom you are currently engaged in a face-to-face conversation. They are your priority
  • Use positive body language to reinforce your engagement and commitment to the other person
  • Switch your phone off more often than you do now – and gradually increase this over time
  • Leave your phone at home occasionally
  • If you are a manager, inform your employees that your policy is that they are NOT contactable outside of work hours
  • Reduce your own time on social media
  • Be the first to say ‘hello’ in a lift

2.  Banks and large corporations deploying communications firewalls

A firewall is a system that provides network security by filtering incoming and outgoing network traffic based on a set of user-defined filters. In general, the purpose of a firewall is to reduce or eliminate the occurrence of unwanted network communications while allowing all legitimate communication to flow freely.

Increasingly, large corporations such as telcoms and banks deploy communication firewalls to keep outindividual callers (legitimate customers) by re-directing them to virtual assistants (if you have a Scottish accent, forget about it), call centres (usually unhelpful due to the staff’s poor technical competence) or their local branches. Allow me to describe a recent call to our bank made by my wife. The name of the bank and its virtual assistant will not be disclosed here.

We had two of our credit cards blocked due to our IDs not being renewed by being uploaded into a banking machine at our branch (we had). Already observing signs of emotional stress in my wife ahead of the call, we were both prepared for the worse.

We were not disappointed.

Firstly, we are forced to use a 600 number (not the free 800 number) that we pay for by the minute (1st stressor). Then my wife is greeted by the virtual assistant whom I will name as ‘Tom’ (not its real name). Something about our New Zealand accent offends Tom as it cannot understand her ‘yes’ response. To answer in the affirmative, my wife has to say “yaars’, resembling a response you might hear in Texas (2nd stressor).

After 3-4 minutes, Tom gives up and connects my wife to a human assistant located in some call centre in the deepest darkest spot on the planet, far, far away from the city in which we live. Here, after repeating her problem in English as various speeds and accent adjustments at least 3-5 times (3rd stressor), she is faced with a choice of either being returned to further tortures from Tom or asked to visit our bank branch. On this occasion, we were asked to visit the bank branch.

The entire call lasted 15 minutes (a cost to us, remember!) and ended with the obligatory, feckless sign-off “we regret any inconvenience caused” (similar to those annoying notices found on disabled gym equipment, usually the only one available in a busy gym after work, that read “We are working to enhance your experience. Apologies for any inconvenience”).

We tried a different branch this time and oh! wonder of wonders, the competent, caring branch manager there unblocked the logjam, making several calls to do so. It was also quite telling in the branch manager’s interaction with Tom (virtual assistant) as we noticed similar painful facial expressions (result of stressors 1 and 2 above) and ‘tuts’ of frustration as they attempted to interact with this most unhelpful of assistants.

Tips to large corporations:

  • Unless your virtual assistant has a complete understanding of all English accents (160) and different types of ‘Englishes’ (as many as there are world languages), please do not deploy it as a communication assistant. The experience is quite deplorable and contributes to a feeling of isolation and dislocation, similar to attempting to scale the lofty walls of an impregnable castle while avoiding huge rocks and boiling oil dropped on you from above. It is exhausting and demeaning
  • Provide deeper technical training for call centre staff so that they do not have to put customers on hold (paying for the call by the minute) while they call the experts
  • A good customer experience means that the individual’s experience during all points of contact matches the individual’s expectations. Our expectations are now zero whenever we attempt to contact the bank or any other large company. As a result, we have no relationship with the bank – we are clearly just a number in a column on a spreadsheet. Therefore…
  • …Return to relationship-building and loyalty-building by employing real people talking to one another – it works!!

3.  The bedevilment of passwords and frequent change requests

One of the real benefits of communication technology is the ability to book a cinema seat and enter the cinema by someone scanning the QR codes on our phone, all without printing out a ticket. Simply marvelous!! However, one cinema chain has developed a very frustrating habit of asking for a password change EVERY time we book seats online. The crazy thing is that we use the SAME password each time. We have sent emails and tried to call to notify them of this unhelpful practice but alas, to no avail.

And it’s not just when booking cinema seats or airplane tickets – it seems like every month or so, we are asked to change our current passwords for ‘strong’ passwords using a completely random string of letters (upper and lower case), numbers, and symbols. This, of course, means that the new passwords are absolutely impervious to memorization which, I guess, is the whole point of the exercise. 

But why so often do we receive these requests? And how do they expect us to remember hundreds of passwords going back 20 years? I know there are some very good applications that store passwords but that’s also a huge risk. All my eggs now are in one basket and if I drop it……??

Tips for sensible password memory and storage:

  • Create passwords, even using the non-sensical rules above, so that they make sense to YOU. This will help you to remember your new ‘strong’ password
  • If you are over 40, then invest in a password management application but for heaven’s sake, make regular backups, storing the backup file on another device (preferably in a safe)

4.  Technology subscriptions masquerading as piracy

We all do it. Setting up a website or purchasing an online product or service, we quickly sign up, usually in haste without noticing the auto-renewal (the default) terms. We think at the time, “hey, it’s a year away” and therefore, we don’t pay much attention to it until we approach the renewal time 10-11 months down the line.

Then, we start to panic. Why? Because having spent 12 hours exploring the website to find the subscription page where we can turn off the auto-renewal, it’s simply not there. The instructions we have downloaded from the Internet do not match the diagrams and photos of the route ahead to cancel the subscription.

When we call the online company from whom we bought the service, they ask a question such as “did you use iTunes? to buy it?” You have forgotten, of course, as your purchase was made in a glaze of high excitement and optimism. And this now becomes a problem as the online company then absolves itself of any responsibility, blaming 3rd party providers for your predicament.

This is piracy by any other name.

If you are very, very lucky and persistent, you may eventually locate the cancellation link craftily hidden away in deep subterranean vaults with the company website. And when you do, you find yourself breaking out in hysteria, so happy and pleased to have found the hidden ‘gem’ after so many days of seeking it – and more importantly, you have avoided another year of paying for a service which you have found to be totally useless.

Tips for potential subscribers:

  • Read the terms and conditions (the small print) before purchasing
  • Turn off the auto-renewal feature before purchasing
  • Take note if you use a 3rd party application like iTunes to complete the purchase
  • If you have bravely opted for this, check to confirm whether the company sends reminders of the approaching auto-renewal date. If they don’t, then enter a date at least two weeks before the renewal date into both your online and paper calendars

In summary, I want to leave you with this quote from Frank Chodorov (US author and libertarian, 1887-1966). It speaks to the truth of what I tried to unveil here:

“When the individual is relieved of the obligation of self-respect, he acquires the habits of helplessness; he is inclined to retreat to the security of the prenatal state. The more he is taken care of, the more he wants care.”

Don’t become a victim of technology that has created, in many ways, a positive impact, connecting all of us across the planet. As a result, technology has helped to create the sense, if not the reality, of a ‘world village’. Take control and manage your own affairs. Don’t be lazy by out-sourcing your duties and responsibilities that, upon satisfactory attention and self-completion, build and maintain your self-respect and reputation.

People matter – don’t forget that.

I hope you have enjoyed this article and I welcome your feedback.

#disconnection #communication #technology #togetheralone #corporations

Dr Peter J. Hatherley-Greene, Director of Learning, at Emarise

Emarise has a particular interest in Nationalisation efforts in the UAE, assisting both Emiratis and private sector companies and organisations to facilitate smoother recruitment and onboarding of Nationals that leads to improved long-term retention.

Backed by doctoral-level research which described the difficult cultural border crossings experienced by young Emiratis as they make the transition from high school to colleges and universities of higher education, Dr. Peter Hatherley-Greene, Emarise Principal and Director of Learning, has over 22 years’ experience working with organizations in the GCC on cultural-change and specializes in supporting organizations to overcome the unique challenges and to capture the opportunities which Emiratization presents

Published Peter Hatherley Green


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