by Julius WiedemannJul 20, 2021
I define here connectivity as the art and science of maintaining the feedback loop with the world around you. The flow of information that happens between us and other people and things serves as one of the best ways to assess the reality of our day-to-day lives. Digital technologies have now created a web of products and services that is now the base for millions of multinationals to operate. If the British had an empire where the sun never set, millions of multinationals are today incomparably more dynamic, and reliant on, in the use of technologies that allow them to keep the pace from production to fulfilment to delivery virtually anywhere in the world.
An important point to make, in a more deterministic approach, is that ideas can only flourish when certain technologies allow a larger group of people to envision similar changes. The idea of a helicopter developed by Leonardo da Vinci had to sit and wait until more people understood flying machines as viable projects. I moved to Japan in December of 1997, and in 1998 NTT Docomo, the largest mobile operator in the country, launched its first 3G service. I had email on my mobile from that year. Still on a small screen, with low quality display and poor interface. But the principles were there. Wifi services were also launched the same year, and took only a few years to become ubiquitous in public spaces, homes and businesses. Both 3G and Wifi have contributed to a major uptake in mobile use, and an incomparable consumer-approach to services that didn’t exist before.
In a hunt to shift the paradigm in communications, the first BlackBerry (the 850) was launched in 1999 when the new millennium was about to start. It was a sign that from that moment, the death of the "working desk" was subtly declared. And partners and children had now to share that attention with a device which was now vital to a new working scheme: the real time response ability. There are still desks in offices, but more and more without owners. It has also transformed the daily routines, from breakfast checking emails to night-time last checking of emails. The iPhone came in 2007, only 10 years later, when Nokia held its largest market share in the world, of about 50 per cent. Other smartphones with sophisticated features started even before, but it was really in the turn of the century that a major shift was about to come through the BlackBerry.
According to research firm RescueTime, one of the several apps for iOS and Android created to monitor time, phone users generally spend an average of over three hours on their devices every day, with the 20 per cent of heavy users spending more than four-and-a-half hours. It is not controversial to say that it is more important now to have a phone than a computer. And we are not talking about just the younger generation. For instance, nearly 40 per cent of Facebook users were born in 1945 or before, a growth from just 26 per cent from 2018. Since the telephone, we have managed a hyperbolic achievement in communication, year after year, in both quality and quantity. In the current world scenario, it has become almost the only way to stay alive in business, education, relationships and sometimes psychological sanity. The top 10 dating apps in the USA have a combined 25 million users. Relationships depend on it too. Since the end of March, Tinder has allowed users to look for partners abroad, without charging for a “passport”, a service to allow search in places elsewhere from your location.
Comprehensive statistics that elucidate communications are sometimes hard to find. But these are interesting numbers: in 2019, the United States Postal Services sent 142 billion snail mail, whereas 293 billion emails were sent and received worldwide per day. And email is not even that most popular communication method. Text chats such as FB Messenger surpassed SMS messages already in 2013. The volume is just staggering. But connectivity is now imbedded in everything we do, from contactless cards to refrigerators. From smart watches to the advertising presented to you related to a message you have just written on WhatsApp. It has permeated our lifestyles deeply, so that we now take for granted a lot of information we have available to facilitate things, such as seeing the restaurant or flight reservation on Google Maps automatically.
The idea of connectivity must have to do also with the idea of creating a global civilisation, which remains a challenge, and comes with brownie points and also pitfalls. But it was definitely turbo-charged by digital means, which keep surprising us. It is a value, more than ever today. It defines even the next post-pandemic world we are about to create, with features of both adoption and negation of it. With it all available, and more and more tested, we will be able to make choices. Now, the art of relaxing is becoming increasingly centred on the art of disconnecting. The reason being that we are so much connected that taking a time off has become a necessity. I confess I struggle with it. Disconnecting demands an enormous effort from my part. I live a life with completely different values from my grandparents, and I always wonder what they would make of today’s reality.
Read more from the series Digital Legacies where our columnist Julius Wiedemann investigates the many aspects of digital life.