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Marian Salzman

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A Cloudy Forecast for Screenagers

Posted: 11/22/11 11:31 AM ET

In the late '90s, Douglas Rushkoff's book Playing the Future introduced the term "screenager:" a teenager who spends a lot of time at a computer screen sending emails and instant messages, downloading music and movies, playing games and cruising around online. Cut to 15 years later, and we are all living in a screen age. Time online is no longer just for teens; it's for anyone with a power cord and a pulse.

In another nod to Rushkoff's book, the future is playing now, with the computer screen or the screen of your tablet or phone as mediator, translator and conduit of today's new shorthand. A few years ago, "lmao" and "brb" and ☺ were the provenance of the young digital natives, but now they belong to all of us as the new slang, and they have virtually changed language forever. (#iRoglyphics)

Right now, the place enjoying a full-on mobile-me moment is Africa: the continent has more than 400 million mobile users (more than the U.S.), and its longtime connectivity conundrum is being solved, meaning mobile is that screenager sweet spot that allows progress, change and prosperity. Mobile will "mobilize" Africans to make their world a whole lot better, with everything from healthcare to education benefiting from a new life spent online.

Screen age is a nod to our new instaculture. The role of Skype, internet TV sites such as Hulu, and music-sharing sites like Spotify all contribute to living a life onscreen and will continue to change the way we interpret "place" (watch TV anywhere, talk live with loved ones from your couch, go on virtual job interviews) in 2012.

But with a constant compulsion to be online comes addiction, and Internet dependency and addiction is growing. And it's no joke: The 2011 "World Unplugged" global experiment asked 1,000 students in 10 countries on five continents to go 24 hours without media. Young people across the world, from Argentina to China, reported symptoms akin to drug withdrawal: anxiety, depression, feelings of loss, loneliness, emptiness and, said one American student, "itching, like a crackhead." Naturally, this is more than alarming; it's making all of us take a good, hard look at our "habit" and think about a digital detox à la our current obsession for cayenne pepper and juice cleanses to detoxify our livers and tummies. I think many people will deliberately unplug, by choice, and seek out places where wireless is not an option. This isn't new, of course, but it's not only disconnection as a break from media. It's also disconnection from news overload, weather overload and keeping-up-with-the-Joneses overload. Maybe it's not Internet dependency but Internet codependency that has us itching. Are we simply too dependent on our screenage lust to serve as partner, best friend, business partner, news reporter and stylist?

Onscreen life is feeding another addiction, too: shopping. Shopping under the (tech) influence is going to change the game when it comes to how we make purchases, and Microsoft's Kinect is leading the way. Kinect technology, first employed in gaming, is now being used to create virtual fitting rooms wherein 3-D models of our bodies can try on clothes online ("Do my thighs look virtually fat in this?"). And the smart money is on megaretailers such as Macy's, which installed a Magic Fitting Room in its Herald Square store in New York City. Within minutes, shoppers were trying on the most popular tops, dresses and jackets, creating as many as 16 outfits that could be stored in a digital closet, then shared on Facebook and by email. Mobile shopping, aka m-commerce, is also gaining ground. French Connection, Zara, Mulberry and Marks & Spencer all allow their Facebook fans to browse products on Facebook and their mobile phone, and many retailers are sure to follow suit in 2012 and 2013.

If you're bored with your smartphone and computer, know that tablet life is going to take hold in 2012 and contribute to a growing work-life blur as employees bring their personal tablets and smartphones to the office to complement their work-issued machines. The biggest watchers of the tablet trend will be the publishing industry (about 10 percent of all new U.S. book sales are digital, led by textbooks, children's books and travel guides) and the PC industry (tech forecasters estimate that the sale of 35 million tablets in 2011 could reduce PC sales by anywhere from 11 million to 28 million units). Taking to the tablet is going to stimulate the media community from editors to PR professionals.

In addition to our (so-called) lives on screen, things are looking up, with everything from data storage to payroll to intracompany communications taking to the cloud and taking 24/7/365 to a whole new level: not just anytime, but from anywhere. Because the public at large is demanding a constant connection, more people will be able to play their music from anywhere, share files from anywhere and access information from -- you guessed it -- anywhere.

The biggest player in this cloudy forecast? Mobile -- the perfect device for cloud-based technology because of its extreme portability and ability to store our emails, notes, social networks, and favorite music and shopping sites in one place. But I can't help but wonder if all this utility and portability comes at a price: a feeling of transience and a nomadization of our digital endeavors, with our sense of place being, well, up in the air.

With all of us taking to the cloud, many will feel the need to touch the ground from time to time. All this connection will bring a sense of disconnection from the sensory pleasure of real life (as opposed to life in the screen age).

 

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