An Ubiquitous Cultural Shift in Focus

I started working at Apple in 2006, a year or so before the release of the iPhone. While there were certainly “smart phones” around prior to the existence of the iPhone, they were significantly less prominent. I had owned devices from Blackberry and Palm, and was fascinated by the technological developments being made with faster, smaller processors, and increasingly more powerful phones. Being able to check email from anywhere was relatively new, and as the various phone carriers upgraded their network speeds, browsing the web for information became easier and less painful. But once the iPhone dropped in 2007, then Android phones started appearing, as well, the “smart phone” took off. It was no longer just tech-obsessed “early adopters” who had these things; it was everyone. It was your mother, your grandmother, your neighbors, your barista, and eventually, your elementary school students. Over time, most cell phone users moved to “smart phones” of one type or another, and over that same period of time, the social behavior pertaining to the use of these devices changed, as well.

At first, it was less noticeable, in that you might see someone on a public street stopping to type something to someone with their thumbs on their smart phone from time to time. Then you’d see people driving, with one hand on the wheel, and their other hand on that smart phone, eyes focused on whatever it was that had captured their interest. Then you’d see a table full of people out at a restaurant, having a group dinner, all of them focused exclusively on the content their phones were delivering to them. You’d see people actively walking down the street, not looking in front of them, reading this or that on that tiny screen, as if what was happening on Twitter or Facebook was infinitely more interesting than the world they were physically moving through. You’d see people ordering food, then taking pictures of that food, rather than eating it, in order to broadcast said photographic evidence of the meal they’d ordered to the rest of the Internet. You’d go to a concert, and instead of seeing hundreds of hands holding up disposable Bic lighters, those same hands were holding up iPhones or Samsung Galaxies to capture crappy video clips of whatever band they’d paid thirty bucks to see. Rather than watching, listening, and enjoying the experience, they were trying to capture a small bit of that experience, not so much because they wanted to be able to remember the experience, but because they wanted to “net brag” to their friends and associates via social media that they were watching Band X right now, while the friends and associates were not. But they weren’t actually watching Band X. They were, instead, engaged in narcissistic self-promotion.

Sociologists have begun to explore the cultural and social changes that the greater prevalence of mobile network connectivity and social media have brought us, though there is still much more studying to be done. And as these studies are being explored, new social and cultural changes continue to develop. Much of these changes have too much momentum to effectively be thwarted at this point, as cultural buy-in applies societal pressure to large masses of people to engage in the same behavior, lest they be left behind. When communication was predominantly face-to-face, behavior was obviously different than it became once communication moved to electronic forms, with the introduction of increasingly large amounts of passive-aggressive or aggressive-aggressive behavior present, possibly due to the bravery provided by a certain sense of anonymity. That’s neither here nor there for purposes of what I’m getting at; we are, as a society, increasingly reliant upon surprisingly fragile layers of technology for tasks from simple navigation, to communicating with each other, to making decisions about life, about paths, or about banal consumer choices. Looking at this dependency from a security analysis standpoint, one cannot help but notice the potential flaws that could prove disastrous to a society reliant upon these layers of technology. It can all fall apart. It can collapse under a cascading failure of any number of factors; electrical power, cabled network infrastructure, and cellular infrastructure all depend on one another at this point. Nature, or bad actors (which, arguably, could still be considered “nature”, given than human beings are still a part of nature, whether we fancy ourselves outside or above it or not), or catastrophic accidents could easily collapse one of the underlying pillars, and depending on the scope, human-planned recovery may not be automatic, easy, or even possible in that event. What remains to be seen is the actual effect of this infrastructure collapsing on society as a whole. For localized areas that aren’t entirely reliant upon it, the effects may be minimal. But for large urban centers, it could be devastating. And large groups of humans aren’t known for their reasoned, measured responses to major tragedies.

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