Why women, not mobile tech, have provided the most profound changes

There's a splendid interview with Kevin Kelly on edge.org. He points out that, in the early days of the web, everyone assumed it would turn into "TV 2.0": "5,000 different sources giving you the specialty information about a horse channel and a dog channel and a cat channel and a saltwater aquarium channel... and you could get it all in your home.

"But, of course, that missed the entire real revolution of the web, which was that most of the content would be generated by the people using it. The web was not better TV, it was the web."

This story struck me when I was reading an article in The New York Times. In the 70s, an American academic shot scenes of ordinary interactions on street corners. A few years ago, another academic, looking to understand the effect of mobile devices on social interactions, realised he could use those films as a baseline comparison. So he went out and shot movies of the same street corners and squares. Then he got his students to compare both films – noting carefully the number of interactions, the amount of smiling, chatting and talking, and the texting and phoning and game-playing. Thousands of interactions later, they had a few interesting findings.

It's not a change most of us have noticed, but it's more important than anything to do with mobile technology

First, there was no evidence of phones having any detrimental effect on everyday connectedness. In fact, phones weren’t used very much at all and the only people using them were on their own anyway. They were loitering and filling time. The phones weren’t blocking conversations, they were occupying the bored.

More interesting is something they didn’t expect to find – there are more people just hanging around in public than there were 30 years ago. That may be why we have a sense that we’re surrounded by aimless people on phones – it’s more about the loitering than the phones.

But the most fascinating finding was more unexpected. The most noticeable difference between the two sets of films wasn’t the presence of newfangled gadgets, it was the presence of women. Thirty years ago, there were just way fewer women on their own in public.

That’s not something you ever hear about from opinion columnists or pundits. That’s not something the futurists extrapolate from. It’s not even a change most of us have noticed, but it’s more important and profound than anything to do with mobile technology.

This is worth remembering. Prediction is such a fool’s game. We can’t even get the recent past right – how are we ever going to get anything right about the future?

Russell Davies is a creative director at Government Digital Service

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