Back in the late 80s and early 90s, there was a term called “The Computer Widow”. This referred to the wives who hardly ever saw their computer-obsessed husbands, except from the back.
It’s a morbid metaphor, but served a purpose: obsession with computer-based work or distractions took time away from relationships, leaving wives feeling bitter, abandoned and effectively “widowed”. (This also speaks to the predominantly male-oriented computer and web culture that has more and more opened up to gender equity as the years have passed.)
I’m sure there were Ham Radio widows in previous generations, or partners of inventors or hobbyists whose work was obsessive and nature and revolved around a stationary set of tools.
Now that large desktop computers and wired network connections have been largely replaced by ubiquitous wireless handheld devices, our behaviour and expectations are different.
Since I got my first fully web-enabled smartphone in 2009 (a Palm Pre), I began breaking a 10 year habit: instead of checking my email and surfing the web at my desktop PC each night, I began reading online news and managing my email on my smartphone multiple times per day. This has sometimes caused me to be one of those distracted people, reading my emails in the car or in bed at night, but generally, I think it’s been a huge improvement in terms of convenience and access. Now I only sit at my PC once or twice per week, and when I do, I’m amazed at how few messages come through to my desktop Inbox. I’ve been doing all my email reading, managing and deleting from my phone or sometimes my tablet. Those mobile devices have become my access points, and come with me to bed, the bathroom or in the car, and most of the time, this is an absolute convenience. I do think that my wife is feeling much less widowed in 2013, than she might have felt back in 2000. Now, we both compute and communicate wirelessly, and we can do it together at a coffee shop, chatting and commenting (or at least acknowledging each other) while we tap away at our respective work or hobby projects.
For me, mobility has definitely improved and alleviated the technology “widow” factor. Is this the same for others? Does being preoccupied in other locations or on the road make the preoccupation less of a problem? Does it allow busy people to get on with their lives, moving from task to task, or to different social situations, while staying connected or productive online?
Or, does it just allow us to be distracted by cyberspace while risking social dysfunction in real-space?
Fragmented and Unrecognizable Contexts
In the pre-mobile days, the context for an activity was largely recognizable by physical location, or unambiguous use of a particular device. In the analog world, you used a radio to listen to airborne audio, and you used a telephone for person-to-person voice communications. Other people could see that you were on the phone, or hear and see that you were listening to the radio.
Ubiquitous mobile (and soon wearable) computing and wireless communications makes this third-party recognition much more difficult: you may have to deal with lunch mates who are repeatedly distracted by their phones, or send text messages or tweets while they’re supposed to be paying attention to that fascinating story you’re relating about your dog. It’s hard to tell if someone who’s talking to themselves as they walk down the street is schizophrenic, or having a phone conversation on a bluetooth earpiece.
As ubiquitous computing and communications evolve and the boundaries between man and machine become less distinguishable, it’s going to get weirder and ore difficult to recognize when you are being conversed with or interrupted by another person.