During a recent trip to Vancouver I was startled to observe a few situations that demonstrated how technology is usurping more traditional ways of doing things.
One night, I attended the emo-rock band Thursday’s show at the Croatian Cultural Centre. It was an all-ages gig, so the crowd was mostly teens.
I was taken aback by the foyer filled with kids sitting around, chatting or texting on their cell phones. There were groups of them huddled together but instead of talking to one another they were choosing to communicate with someone somewhere else.
It was a classic scene of tragicomedy, the sort where, if you didn’t laugh, you cried. But I was completely unprepared by what was yet to come.
During the show’s only ballad, a piano-driven number called “This Song Brought to You by a Falling Bomb,” I fully understood the grip that mobile technology holds on the upcoming generation of gadget lovers.
As the lead singer crooned and crawled around the stage like a wounded dog, instead of lighters, the air filled with cell phones held aloft. People were video-recording the performance. It was almost surreal, a sea of glowing devices not even swaying, just holding still in the air, saluting the band.
My generation was never into the ballad-lighter thing. Whenever we raised one it was always in jest to our Led Zeppelin-loving predecessors. (That’s not to knock the Zep, just to prod the old fogies who could never seem to evolve past them.)
So to see this roomful of glowing mini-screens was mesmerizing. Of course, I pulled out my Treo and added my small, butane-free glow to the scene.
It all made me comprehend one subtle but important facet of technology culture: we’re rarely “in the moment” when using devices. Handheld mobile communications technology permits us to almost be somewhere else even as we’re here.
By recording the performance for another time, or by choosing to chat to an absent friend rather than the one in front of us, we are reducing the quality of experience in any given moment. We’re never fully absorbing the here and now.
Another remarkable change is in the way people in Vancouver absorb information publicly. Strolling the streets I’m struck by how many laptops sit on tables in cafés and how few newspapers or magazines are being read. I went in one café in North Vancouver where every table had at least one laptop sitting on it. Some had two.
It’s no longer “weird” to take your technology with you. I recall sitting in a café just a couple of years ago, working on my laptop and getting looks of derision from people.
Most people I observed were reading mainly foreign news sites, though some read gossip sites. Internet-driven information mechanisms are clearly beating out traditional print media publications, at least in Vancouver’s trendy haunts.
Of course, hand-in-hand with widespread public use of laptops is the fact that Wifi is practically ubiquitous in this city. There’s no planned structure to the WiFi network in Vancouver, it’s not a municipal or corporate umbrella environment. Instead it’s more of a mixed “Wifibourhood” with patches of open home network access points interspersed with free cafe networks. A smattering of larger, commercial networks from the likes of Bell and Telus appear every now and again.
The widespread access to Wifi in an urban centre doesn’t necessarily represent the replacement of a traditional means of information delivery that came before. However, it does indicate that this is a technology that society is, in general, becoming dependent upon and expects to have access to.
These changes are interesting mainly because they represent widespread societal adoption of some technologies that will help to redefine our culture. Cell-phone ballad salutes and laptop cafés may not seem like much but they do indicate the degree to which technology is being sewn into the social fibre.