Picture: THINKSTOCK
Picture: THINKSTOCK

I WONDER if at some point it’ll all just merge, or disperse us? Technology has become pervasive, some would argue invasive, in our lives. Should there be rules, can we make rules? Let’s start with something that’s become so close to us it may soon be defined as a body part. Something that never gets left behind, like family.

Cellphones are central to our ability to be functional in our modern, everyday lives, although I do know a couple of people who still refuse to have a cellphone. At some point I suggested that we introduce an international Cellphone-Off Day, perhaps January 2 every year — a day of rest.

All very well, but I’m not sure I could survive without one all the time. The truth is that I now have two — one for business and one private — in my new line of work you have to split the two.

One day SIM cards will be implants, so that’ll sort that out. One day they’ll be organisms, biological. One day…

Having to be connected is just one of those blurry lines we deal with in our complex lives. While mobile telephony is one of the wonders of the world, being able to morph instantly into another persona in the ether can also have its problems.

For sure, there are things you can "say" in the ether without somehow feeling as responsible for them as you might face to face — but when you do, you create data, a footprint.

Despite this permanent record, you never know whether what you sent and what was received were congruent, and that’s not just in the one-to-one space. What you release into the ether becomes public property, even though it shouldn’t. Once you push send, "oops" doesn’t help. There is malice out there.

I’m not sure where the spam comes from or how it chooses or finds me, but it does. What’s more, if you innocently open an e-mail that seems to come from an old friend you think you’ve forgotten, then you unwittingly let them into your intimate data life; join any number of clubs; and subscribe for buckets more of the same, which it is then up to you to unsubscribe from. What nonsense!

There should be some rules and they are trying to write them, but it is difficult. For one thing, data doesn’t have to show its passport when it crosses sovereign air spaces, and different rules apply in different jurisdictions.

Like all enabling interhuman devices, this technology can be good and bad.

Maybe it’s got nothing to do with technology, it’s just that there are good and bad people out there, although we all start off good — I know we do.

But cellphones aren’t just about bilateral communication, their real trick, their leverage, is social media. If you’re not factoring social media into your future business strategy then, soon enough, you just won’t count.

Never before has business been able to get up so close and personal (sometimes uncomfortably so) with its clients and potential clients. If you’re waiting for your clients to come to you and you don’t think you have to go to them, you are confused.

The other day a shop greeted me as I walked past it. Some of the interfaces are already obvious, such as financial services, in fact anything to do with the movement of money. I don’t know who said it first, but "the client is more valuable than his custom" is proving to be the differentiator in client acquisition strategies (which are the drivers of valuation nowadays).

This is the new axiom of social media economics.

It’s getting beyond information and transactions now — social media is about grouping and influencing. I’m not sure whether it’ll end up gathering or widening the social and economic divides. Despite the fact that it herds us, it does so selectively, exclusively, purposely. It has characteristics of both power and vulnerability; you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

Speed of spread is at the root of social media power –— politically, people have never been able to gather so quickly or pervasively behind the cause of the day. Hashtag is the new uniform that binds social armies.

Crowdfunding, strikes, news and opinion are real time, and you can stay in touch with the cricket score at the same time. As the unit cost of information delivery diminishes, so the tsunami of data overcomes us all and we relinquish our individuality into the streams and broader currents of influence that engulf us. The seemingly tiny increments of economics per unit of participation all seem worth it at the margin, but they add up to powerful machines that eventually rule us. Go check out the valuation of the sources, go price the services of the new-age techno-engineers.

Perhaps the most profound impact of technological advance will always be felt in science and medicine. If we were to extrapolate the current trends in life-extending medical technology, then the prospect of everlasting life (on Earth) may not be a crazy notion for much longer.

Angus and I were discussing what’s new at school.

Science, he said. How exciting, I replied, what is the first thing you’re learning? About what makes things living, he said — having a heartbeat as a primary determinant (dealing only with animals), and movement being another.

I’ve always thought that being able to keep on moving extended lifespan. The corollary is certainly true — if you stop moving, you start dying.

And so, as we move inevitably towards being robotically perpetuated, is it worth it? Is that the ultimate purpose of technological advance? Is that what defines us as humans?

Given the choice (which not everyone has) we all seem to find marginal utility in more time alive, regardless of whether that clogs up the advance of the human race and the mean standard of living. I can’t believe the coexistence of four generations, often forced into close proximity by economic constraints, was ever part of the grand social design. Maybe the rules will change, maybe full bodies will become redundant — maybe we’ll just be heads, kept linked to the life source and connected in the ether, by our kids.

Not such a bad idea — no pain, no space — but you’d better get on well with your kids!

Technological advance is what defines us as humans. I’m not sure where it’ll all end or whether it’ll be evil or virtuous. A mixture most likely — robots are controllable machines and humans are independent minds.

Well, that’s the way it used to be, before we sacrificed our individual identities to join that amorphous mingling of real and imagined persons that gather in the ether to play.

I’m ready to sign up for another 25 years of life. Or do I want 30?

• Barnes is South African Post Office CEO