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The role of technology in enhancing in-person interactions

Technology, especially mobile devices, usually has a bad reputation, being associated with detrimental effects on in-person social connection. However, in this blog post we’ll give examples of how technology can actually have a positive role in enhancing in-person interactions, specifically when people have shared focused attention and the intention to share experiences together.

As summarised by Turkle in her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, our dependency on technology steals us away from being present in the real world, meaning that we only get “sips” of connection, rather than quality communication. But it’s not that technology can’t facilitate social interaction at all, in fact, usually when people are on their phones they are connecting and building relationships with others, just not with the people they’re sitting with. The range of social media platforms and messaging apps we have access to today makes asynchronous and remote communication easy, which in some situations can be positive, such as during the lockdown period where digital technology acted as a buffer against loneliness.

However, it can also mean that even when we’re physically around others, people still (often unintentionally) prioritise fostering connections through digital means over those in real life. As a result, situations where friends are hanging out “together” but in reality everyone is individually scrolling through TikTok on their own phones is becoming an increasingly common occurrence.


It seems like for in-person interactions, the optimal form of social connection would be without technology and for remote or distributed interactions, technology would be beneficial. But maybe it isn’t so straightforward. An interesting paper by Olsson et al (2020) explores the role of technology in enhancing collocated social interaction, i.e. social interaction where people are physically located together. For the authors, enhancement goes beyond facilitating social interaction but also actively improves the quality, value and extent of social interaction.


The paper references two different levels of interaction; in focused circumstances attention and goals are shared, e.g. a conversation between two people, whereas in unfocused circumstances, people have different lines of attention and pursue different goals, e.g. people independently shopping in a supermarket. In order for technology to enhance in-person social interactions, people would need to have focused gatherings, whereby they have shared attention and are in the mindset to interact together.


One way of enhancing interaction is by enabling multi-user shared displays, which allows people to share experiences at the same time. A good example of this is in-person gaming, where users are engaged in a game together and the device acts as a tool to improve the quality of their experience through enjoyment. Another example is interactive installations or digital public displays, where social interaction is facilitated through shared engagement and experiences with the environment, which can also act as a talking point to guide conversation. An example of this is the Keys of Light piano installation in the City of London which uses projection mapping, a technique where objects are used as display surfaces for video projection. In this installation, passersby can play a piano where each note triggers a different light pattern response, which is projected onto the Guildhall Yard building, creating a shared fun and immersive experience for both musicians and listeners.


These examples show that it is definitely possible for technology to enhance rather than hinder in-person social interactions. Perhaps more needs to be done to support focused interactions, maybe through increasing the prevalence of city installations or by developing small and simple ways that people can interact together on mobile devices.


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