The Last Offline Children

We are living through the most important transition of modern civilization.

I was born the year that the internet became available to the public for the first time. I grew up side by side with one of the most important revolutionary inventions and I’ve witnessed the rise of game changing technologies that put the concept of reality of itself upside down.

I was introduced to the world the same year that the internet did, 1991. I’ve lived through the democratization of knowledge, the power to connect to anyone across the globe within seconds and the ability to make transactions, build relationships, start businesses, spark uprisings, revolutionize the economy.

The internet opened a whole new dimension into our lives.

The transition we’re going through from our analog world to our ever connected online status changed everything along the way. Devices kept getting smaller and smaller but our relationships collapsed and expanded at once. We went from bulky heavy computers to computer-like devices that could fit in our pockets and were powered with faster processors and memory in the span of a decade.

Devices are now an extension of ourselves.

Not that long ago, in the United States, the CEO of Facebook was interviewed by the Supreme Court due to the platform’s contribution regarding the level of influence it played during the presidential elections. The meeting showed one of the intrinsic flaws of the current system and the reason why we can’t rely on them. Most policy makers barely understood the platform, how it makes money and therefore aren’t capable of, as a starting point, make the right questions to enable a conversation about change. Others, simply used the session to ask favours from the interviewee. That’s where we are at a loss when we are up against massive billion dollar data enterprises.

My generation represents the bridge between the analog past and the digital future. We were caught in the middle of the people whose dynamic was solely based on face to face interactions, snail mail and telephone, and the YouTube celebrity-loving, tech-savvy, virtual reality enthusiast ones that know they can reach anyone they want across the world with a tweet or an email.

I’ve witnessed video games go from moving squares on a screen to photorealistic characters and worlds that immerse you fully into a different reality, from land phones at home from which you used to a call a friend to invite them to hangout, to always at hand smartphones with access to the web and the chance to bail on that date 10 minutes after the time you had both agreed to meet.

I grew up carrying a drawing notebook everywhere I went. It made me feel better to disconnect from the boredom of an outing to a middle age ladies party as I got dragged along by my single mother. I would draw to distract myself, but it was a process that I was completely in charge of. The cheap paper notebook and pencil number 2 wouldn’t stand a chance against the power of an iPad and its allure to keep adults and children alike psychologically attached to the screen.

Often times we downplay the influence of user interfaces going beyond aesthetics. It’s worth noting how its elements are meant to train us the way Pavlov did with his dogs. Most commonly, the notification tab on every app, which pops with its red urgent bubble number on our smartphones and desktop computers and it triggers the anxiety with the fear of missing out that we know all too well. This will also evolve into even more sophisticated forms of engaging us and this mechanism will keep on repeating itself due companies that profit off our attachment to them.

Conversations around ethical design have started happening, with the purpose of crafting products that improve people’s lives instead of spiral the public into depression or feelings of inadequacy and competitiveness as platforms like Facebook and Instagram have done, according to research.

Always remember, as this is the one thing I know will be as relevant in a hundred years as it is now, if you are not paying for a service online, you are the product. Your data and your attention have a price tag.

It’s up to you to be objective and constantly analyze your relationship with tech. We can’t count on policy makers to do what’s right when there are million dollar companies and interests at stake.

As an interface designer myself, I sometimes wonder in which ways I, as an already anxious kid, would’ve been different now, had I grown using these screens 24/7 as I’ve witnessed toddlers and kids do. For one, social media has affected me enough already and it came into my life as a teenager when its influence hadn’t matured as the all-encompassing entity that it has now turned into. Still I am guilty of having spent hours on end scrolling like a well-trained zombie through feeds of content on Facebook and Instagram.

I am an extrovert, if only by conviction now, as my brain has been tricked into thinking that some relevant social interaction has occurred (when it truly hasn’t) by talking to people online. Would I have preferred to talk to this person face to face if I could exchange the time used online for it?

Yet it takes more time to coordinate, to meet up, sync up calendars, check-in with each other, and at the end of the day it requires more effort in a time in which we are putting most of it towards surviving through this broken economy. Social media is the easy fix. Social media is porn for our social lives.

That’s where its danger lies. They know we’re starving for interaction and give us small enough doses of it to keep us hooked. A call on the device meant for calls seems strange now, too out of control, too spontaneous and easy to mess up in. A random talk with a stranger on the street feels heavy-handedly overwhelming, as if it’s hard to tell where to end it, there is not the ease to simply keep on working or browsing and stop feeding lines into the chat box to get back to your business whenever you please.

You no longer even need to get out of your comfort zone, take a risk and talk to someone face to face to find a partner, as apps have made it readily available behind a rather simplistic app mechanism. Conversations still occur, but mostly only after you’ve figured out enough from that person behind a screen to make him/her not a stranger.

I didn’t used to see it from this perspective before I lived in a big city and became acquainted with all the ways we can substitute going out and meeting friends with online chat boxes, but being social seems like hard work now that we rely on tapping keyboards to be with others.

It’s like we’ve forgot that we are social animals. We not only like being around others but we in fact need it. We need it to keep ourselves mentally and physically healthy, it is a requirement to make it to old age sane and to extend our lives that bit longer. Being around other people brings sides of ourselves that can’t ever be achieved in loneliness or behind a screen commenting on a reddit thread.

I grew up with this technology and it opened the world to me, it got me closer to people oceans away, it gave me opportunities beyond what I had imagined, but we now all face the challenge of allowing it (or not) into our lives with a calculated measure, to find the balance of tech providing us with meaningful human connection, career opportunities and helpful resources while not letting it take over our life time, claim ownership over our private data and manipulate us into submission.

UX/UI Designer passionate about design, emergent technologies and how they shape society.

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Mariana Oka

Mariana Oka

UX/UI Designer passionate about design, emergent technologies and how they shape society.

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