Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Slanting Toward Sociability In Ogden

An opinion piece I co-authored with David Ferro titled "Utah's Silicon Slopes should slant to sociability" just came out in yesterday's Standard Examiner.  Below is the piece in it's entirety:

Head to Ogden’s 25th Street any evening, and you will see individuals and groups staring at their phones while simultaneously navigating obstacles and people on city sidewalks. You’re witnessing this summer’s Pokémon Go craze. Meanwhile, a couple of blocks away, on the east side of Washington Boulevard, almost directly across from Five Guys Burgers, there’s the three-story Weber State Downtown building.

WSU Downtown, a partnership between the campus and the community, contains the offices of Startup Ogden, where a number of small companies are developing web and mobile-phone apps. The center is another initiative helping the university and Ogden City contribute to the tech revolution happening up and down the Wasatch Front.

As an engine driving regional economic growth, this revolution is creating Utah’s equivalent of Silicon Valley — our own, so-called Silicon Slopes. A properly directed revolution can’t, however, barrel into the future on the premise that technological progress leads inevitably to economic and social progress. For that reason, all tech initiatives, including those through Ogden and Weber State, should take time to distinguish when the technological innovations they are incubating and adopting are a social boon or a social bane. Has Pokémon Go enhanced or inhibited sociability among Ogdenites?

If mobile devices were exclusively dedicated to running Pokémon Go, the answer would seem pretty clear: the game has nudged people off their basement couches and into the public sphere. A full month after the game’s release, the sidewalks of 25th Street abound with players on the hunt for Pokémon. On the Weber State campus, usually quiet on summer evenings, players prowl the grounds late into the night.

For the young, who don’t remember, or for the technology enthusiasts who conflate technical progress with social progress, these effects might be taken as a matter of course. After all, why else would social media be called social media? And yet, in the long, intertwined history of American sociability and technical innovation, positive outcomes are anything but guaranteed. For example, when the telegraph debuted 150 years ago, Henry Thoreau wondered on the side of Walden Pond whether it was all a frivolous distraction:

“Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end … We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”

Modern sociologists have perceived even darker outcomes. For many of them the technological advancements of the 20th century have isolated Americans from each other. Instead of congregating on the city commons to hear a summer band, Americans hole up in their air-conditioned, suburban homes, watching television by themselves. Instead of walking to work or riding on buses, Americans drive alone. And instead of hanging out on their front porches greeting their neighbors, Americans have built so-called “snout houses” with jutting garages that displace their porches and discourage street-side neighborly interactions.

If these 20th century technologies led to increased social isolation and the desertion of public spaces, tech critics lament that smartphones have worsened the problem. Sociologist Sherry Turkle described it as people who are “alone together.” The greatest illustration of this phrase is the couple sitting together at dinner, each distracted by the siren call of his or her respective phone.

To the outsider, Pokémon Go might look the same: Couples, families and groups of teenagers wandering the streets busily interacting with the game instead of with each other. But that is a caricature of what is usually going on. Between capturing Pokémon, people are communicating about the game, commiserating about the slow server speeds and getting into public spaces in ways they definitely did not in the past. If much of modern technology seems to be indulging individualism and amplifying social isolation, there are also modern tools such as Pokémon Go that encourage the opposite tendencies.

This doesn’t mean we should confuse technological progress with social progress, or that we should settle on the idea our communication devices are “just tools” that can be used for good or ill. Clearly different technologies have different characteristics. Some encourage more sociability where others discourage it. In imagining the next app invented by town/gown and “Startup Ogden,” we should consider these characteristics. In so doing, we’ll enrich Silicon Slopes and our local economy. But even more importantly we’ll ensure the vitality of our own public sphere.

Dr. David Ferro is dean of the College of Engineering, Applied Science & Technology at Weber State University. Twitter: @DavidFerro9.

Dr. Luke Fernandez is a faculty member in the School of Computing at Weber State University. He is co-authoring a book on how Americans have felt about technology from the telegraph to Twitter. Twitter: @luke_fernandez