In the 21st century, children and adults alike are using technology at the same pace – and in many instances, our children are learning faster than we are.
The pace of development is now much faster than the rate of human reproduction, and it is no longer a case of parents handing knowledge down to their children, generation by generation.
Instead, young people’s capacity to learn places them perfectly to grasp and embrace new devices, from touchscreen, sophisticated mobile smartphones with internet access, to entirely new concepts like computing devices in tablet form, and ebook readers.
With all this in mind, where is it leading us as a culture? And what risks are faced by those of us who are less able to keep up with the pace of development?
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Perhaps the most publicly recognised shift in the way we work as a culture is in our shopping habits.
We are no longer at the whim of retailers when it comes to choosing the things we buy; at the touch of a button, we have access to products all over the world, with unparalleled choice not only of what we buy, but also where we buy it from, both in terms of the individual retailer, and of where in the world it comes from.
This is especially apparent during the winter months, when shopping online allows us to place the burden of trekking through the snow on the delivery man, rather than braving poor weather conditions ourselves.
During the winter of 2012-13, online sales grew rapidly – in February alone, they were up by over 10% year-on-year, compared with an overall rise of 4.4% across all retail channels.
Convenience and choice are driving this trend, but with several big-brand insolvencies during the same winter, it raises the question of what future the high streets might play in our internet-driven retail culture.
It is not only the way we shop that is being transformed by the internet, and by technology as a whole; the way we communicate is, too.
While Facebook was always mostly about keeping in touch with real-world friends and family, Twitter is more about building a new network, outside of family and friends, and consisting of like-minded or engaging strangers.
At the end of 2012, there were over 10 million active UK users of Twitter – that’s one in six of the population – and its largely public nature makes it easier than ever to meet people who share your interests, and make new friends of them.
Meanwhile, however, are we neglecting our ‘actual’ friends? Ahead of Christmas 2012, Katherine Eames filmed 1980’s pop star Kim Wilde singing several of her hits on a crowded late-night London Underground carriage, and later uploaded the six-minute clip to YouTube.
Towards the end of the clip, Wilde approaches the camera and delivers a Christmas wish to the (currently almost two million) viewers – and highlighting that many of the people in the carriage are ignoring each other, and her, and instead simply staring into their phones.
‘Online’ is literally a medium in the common ‘media’ sense of the word, but it is also mediating our interaction more and more – to the extent that we can happily ignore things happening right in front of us, but watch them later on a video-sharing site.
Food is one of the fundamental things we need in order to survive; along with other basics like air, water and sleep, it is classed as a physiological essential in Abraham Maslow’s 1943 hierarchy of needs.
Interestingly, like other modern-day essentials such as clothing, food has shown the slowest transition to online sales.
Where other products soon became commonly bought at distance, and delivered within a few days, food and clothing alike showed more signs of inertia.
This is perhaps because we are more discerning about the things that we really need in order to survive: we do not want to settle for the produce selected on our behalf by the supermarkets’ warehouse order-pickers, and we rarely want to buy clothing without trying it on first to see how it looks and fits.
More careful selection of products, and clearer policies over when one brand might be substituted with another, have helped to overcome this for the supermarkets, while generous returns policies and low pricing have done the same for clothing retailers.
In this instance, though, you could be forgiven for asking whether it is wise to put basic and essential needs in the hands of a stranger, mediated by an electronic device and an internet connection.
If we are willing to make our very survival the responsibility of a stranger, it is perhaps no surprise that we are increasingly willing to take the plunge where online relationships are concerned.
As we develop our ever-growing knowledge and knack for using communications technology and the online world in general, online dating sites like Match.com, and other web-based meetings, now account for the beginning of one in five relationships, according to Match.com’s own figures.
Even if you are not specifically looking for somebody to date, friendships established on Twitter can lead to real-life meetings with people who might not normally enter your circle of friends.
This is opening many people up to opportunities they would otherwise miss; but it is also creating new ways to get deeply hurt.
The 2010 film Catfish tells the true story of a man who met a woman online, only to discover that her entire identity was fabricated.
In the real world, our partners may lie to us about some things, especially in the early days of a relationship, but at the very least we can usually tell that they are who they claim to be.
Online, where communication might be as basic as words on a screen, we are no longer protected even by this most basic level of truth – and where matters of the heart are concerned, that can lead to significant hurt being felt.
‘Mail-order brides’ might largely be a thing of the past, but Match.com claim to have “more relationships and marriages than any other site”.
People are now genuinely marrying people they met online, rather than being capable of meeting somebody they love ‘in real life’.
The boundary between the online and ‘real’ worlds are blurring, and sometimes it is the online world that wins; in some instances, people are marrying in virtual worlds like Second Life.
In November 2008, this led to the widely reported story of a couple who were married in real life, but divorced after the wife found her husband ‘cheating’ on her with a female character in Second Life.
We are reaching the stage where our real-life, legally binding, life-long relationships are under threat from declarations of love made by our avatars in what are essentially computer games.
Technology – Our New Love
Ultimately our fascination with technology is turning it into a whole new relationship all of its own, and many people are defined by their choice of PC or Mac, Internet Explorer or Chrome, and iPhone versus Android, BlackBerry or Windows Phone.
Our entire personas are moving online, and losing a social network profile to a hacker can be deeply hurtful – particularly if you have sensitive information stored within the account’s private settings, or have friends on that network who you do not know how to contact through any other means.
This trend is unlikely to slow down any time soon; contact-less payments will only serve to make our mobile devices essential in-store as well as online, and with the pace of development still accelerating, it is impossible to predict where it will lead us as a culture.