I once heard a theory positing that central heating was the root cause for the decay of the family. Granted, this wasn’t a scholarly paper or anything of the sort, but there was definitely something to it. In the days before central heat, homes were warmed by a single source — usually a coal or wood-burning stove in the main room of the house. The result being that on cold winter afternoons, one could choose to be either in their own room — freezing — or warm in the living room with everyone else. This naturally lead to more face to face interaction and ‘family time’. Thus the arrival of central heat marked the end of this sort of forced together time.
Technology has followed a similar path. People used to gather in living rooms around radios and televisions. They used to share a single phone line or computer. Even though the quality of the contact was not always that great (fighting over the remote, anyone?), the need to share brought us into more contact with each other. Now more and more people have their own walkman, gameboy, cell phone, and of course, central heat.
I remember watching a presentation on the ‘digital nomad’, which was the concept of individuals being ubiquitously wired with all data at their fingertips. A digital nomad could wander the woods, constantly aware of their position, weather conditions, possible dangers tagged by location, and check the lastest sports scores to boot. Beneath this vision was the philosophy that self-sufficiency was the ultimate of goals, and that we are best off when we depend on others only in rare and abstract ways (you still need people to populate those databases). This is ‘central heat’ taken to the extreme, and it makes me wonder at times whether there is a different direction for technology that could encourage us to interact and rely on each other in productive ways.
Social networks are trying to do some of this, but I’ll leave that discussion to another day (and comic). KC has plenty to say on it, but he’s likely in Turna Tuva or some other random spot. Suffice it to say that it gets interesting when engineers (who rarely understand the nuances of social grace) take a go at designing applications to facilitate social activity.