Social social social. These days lots of talk in the technology world is about social this and social that. Social networking, social media, social applications of all sorts. And I do love the social technologies and new media applications, quite a lot. Even if I can no longer even hope to keep up with the latest and greatest. But today I got to thinking about technology that enables one to be anti-social.
Anti-social aspects of technology are not new. Back in the day, party line telephones gave way to private lines, and then someone created the answering machine. People started screening calls, voice mail became a must-have, and now GoogleTalk will apparently even transcribe your voicemails and then dump them to your email box so you don't even have to hear the person's voice. Telephones have become anti-social. Efficient for many, many purposes, but definitely not chatty!
Technology offers many other ways to avoid people. Consider the working parent's best friend, a grocery delivery service such as Peapod. (Well, I'm told it's the working parent's best friend - we still haven't done our first order yet, although I suspect it will be happening very soon.) Back in the day, you'd wander to the corner grocery to pick up a few things and shoot the breeze with the clerks, who you probably knew in other contexts. Then came the giant warehouse-style grocery stores but at least you'd interact with the clerk at the checkout. Then they installed the self-checkout aisles, and now you can sit in your infamous bathrobe and order your groceries online. Maybe you nod and wave to the driver when he drops them off, but maybe you don't.
Only a small percentage of the population uses public libraries, but Amazon's Kindle device may soon make even trips to the library obsolete. Email has obviously vastly decreased the number of trips to the post office or even to one's mailbox that need to be taken. You can rent a car, pick it up, and drop it off without interacting in person with a single human being. And so on, and so forth. We're not all living in sealed bubbles connected by pneumatic tubes, of course, but sometimes it can be quite striking how technology can impose distance, even as we live and work with a borderless Internet that in many other ways obviates geography.
Humans are inherently social beings, so I don't actually worry about technology that makes many of these comparatively banal social interactions obsolete. We find ways to interact with other people - it seems to be a relentless drive we have. But in an age of bird flu and swine flu and more and more people foolishly refusing to vaccinate their kids, maybe there's cause to welcome some of these distancing sorts of technologies, even as we try to avoid living too much of our lives locked behind a keyboard and screen.