In 1995 I invented what I called the ego badge, a device that would broadcast your personal information into the area around you wherever you go. Philips simultaneously came up with a similar idea and called theirs the Hot Badge. Anyway, other people’s badges would interact with yours as you passed each other and you would be introduced to them where your badges agreed it is appropriate. I later predicted that our mobile phones would do this, and that just by glancing at your mobile phone screen, you would be able to see where you friends are. It took a while before the mobile companies caught on, but the service was introduced partly in the late 90s as a niche mobile service for night clubs. Various other gadgets followed for introducing people at conferences depending on their personal profiles, seemingly rented out at exorbitant prices by their makers. But the idea that you’d be able to see when your friends are nearby resolutely failed to materialise until recently. But now it has, at last. Now, with social media in widespread use, with profile matching well developed and also part of everyday life, and with the mobile web getting better all the time, the phone is now becoming the platform of choice for social networking. On the move. Foursquare are in the news now, having just reached their first million users http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/pda/2010/apr/26/location-foursquare-acquisition. They offer a package of services around this same basic idea, that you should be able to meet other people automatically or see who is around you, with a device cutting through the ice for you to enable easier networking. They also offer some functions for finding nearby services, but those are irrelevant to this blog entry. I am far more interested in the function that allows you to meet other people based on their profile as you pass them, as opposed to using a dating site at your desk.
I’ve often commented that technology has recently given us mechanisms for tunnelling through strong social barriers that existed for tens of thousands of years. This is one of the major steps forward in that field. It will cause social disruption, some of it good, a lot of it bad. Let’s do a quick thought experiment, and please bear in mind that this blog is not rated for explicit stuff, so I will avoid being too explicit here, you can use your imagination as well as I can:
Stage 1: Your phone allows you to see when one of your friends is in the shop next door, so you can arrange to go for a coffee together. Great. More real world contact with your friends. Nothing wrong with that.
Stage 2: You start using it for business networking. It introduces you to potential employers, clients and suppliers at events, provided they are mutually interested. Great. More and easier business. Better career prospects. However, on the downside, higher business mobility also means shorter periods with any one company and less return on corporate training investment. It also means less experienced staff in a particular role, so customers get lower value too. Gradual decline in service quality could result. Mmmm.
Stage 3: You see someone nice in a club, but are too shy to introduce yourself. Never mind. Your phone checks them out automatically, they are compatible, they have already discovered you too, and your phones tell you both that the other is interested. The phone suggests a place you would both enjoy, a time you are both available (perhaps right now), and even what you might enjoy doing together. Great. Level playing field for shy people. More friends. More dates. The downside is obvious too (or another upside if you are so inclined). It also makes easier cheating for those already in relationships.
A simple fact of life is that you chose your partner from a thousand people you have interacted significantly with (remember also that your great grandparents probably only met a few hundred in their whole lives but you still exist). Bearing in mind that many were in existing relationships, so weren’t available, you actually chose from a much smaller number, just 100-200. So, maybe 1% of the population are highly compatible and even potential upgrades on your current partner.
Now, on a typical day in town, you walk past 2000 people say. That means 20 guaranteed hot dates, if you can both find the time, even if you’re fussy. Today you walk right past each other, unaware of the potential compatibility, and can’t possibly stop and chat to everyone even if you wanted to. But your phone can. And it will. What then? You are frequently introduced to someone you can have fun with, guaranteed mutual attraction and compatibility, your diaries are both clear at a specific time slot for a while. The phone integrates with service providers, so you can see at a glance that a nearby room is available for hire by the hour, (of course hotels won’t be able to resist such easy business). Means, motive, opportunity. So, will you or won’t you? I bet a lot of you will. The temptation will be there, in your face, clear as a bell, every time you are in the wild. And you are only human.
At the very least, we will see a big increase in cheating, and lots more casual sex. Casual sex is a fact of life and society copes with it so far. But the cheating matters, because it undermines existing relationships and therefore undermines longer term happiness for a quick thrill, OK, lots of quick thrills. But surely people need deep relationships, not just quick ones, and we don’t have the social structures or culture that lets us combine them. Do we want to hop from person to person several times a day? I’m sure it would be fun for some, for a while, but it wouldn’t produce long term well-being for most of us. And if we can’t trust our partners, then we can’t enjoy our relationships as much as we can when trust is healthy.
Not done yet. Stage 4: It all starts off nice and (reasonably) innocently, people just hooking up for, as Foursquare so sweetly put it, adventure. It is a safe bet that either they or someone else will introduce lots of derivative features. So it won’t be just one other person, it will be invites to group activities. It won’t be just conventional stuff either, but invites to anything, however sordid. It will be integrated into augmented reality too. If you set the preferences on your head up display accordingly, you will see people’s avatars as you walk past each other. If they are looking for someone like you, you will be shown their ‘special’ avatars, dressed however, doing whatever. You get the picture. Temptation won’t stay at your initial level of standards, it will try to drag you down, and it may succeed, maybe often. So we should expect a much larger fraction of the population becoming involved in more degrading activities, with all the spin-off problems that might bring.
OK, so that is far enough for now, though I could go to stage 5 and 6. I know you’re wondering what they are, but you can carry on wondering.
So, lots of benefits will come from this new technology platform. Shy people will have more fun, we will see more of our friends, and have better career prospects. The price though is a high one, and it isn’t advertised up front as well as it should be.