Monday, August 22, 2011

It's a love-hate relationship with technology

It's a love-hate relationship with technology
By Marco R. della Cava
So here's the tech question of the moment:

Have we fallen so in love with gadgets that allow us to e-mail, text, friend, like and tweet that face-to-face connections will soon feel as awkward as first dates?

Or is there a failure to appreciate how these social network-tethered devices are enabling us to reach new levels of global connectivity?

The answer is, of course, yes and yes.

Novelist Jonathan Franzen, author of Freedom and The Corrections, recently took up one side of this debate in a widely republished commencement address at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. It touted his rediscovered passion for environmental activism as an antidote to the illusion of connection offered online.

But dip your toe into the vast national tub of tech users, thinkers and analysts, and one senses both excitementand concern — often expressed by the same people — about how technology has fast become the furious love of our lives.

Parents are prime offenders, and kids are taking notice

Being in love is a many splendored thing, but it can also be obnoxious if you insist on nuzzling and uttering sweet nothings in public. The same may apply to our infatuation with technology and its myriad devices. Social science researchers at chipmaker Intel have been conducting occasional surveys on the subject, and they recently found that nine out of 10 adults surveyed said they’ve seen people misuse technology, including:

• Using a mobile device while driving: 74%
• Talking loudly while in public: 64%
• Using a device during a performance or event: 40%
• Divulging private information in a public area: 37%
• Using a mobile device at a funeral: 24%

And young users picking up those bad habits, too:

• 50% of children ages 8 to 12 have two or more mobile devices.
• A third of children would rather forgo summer vacation than give up their mobile devices.
• 49% of children say they don’t see anything wrong with using technology at the dinner table.
• 40% of parents admit they spend too much time using a device in front of their kids, and 42% of children think their parents need to disconnect more while they’re at home.
• But 49% of parents prohibit mobile device use during school, 43% during family time; 18% set limits on whom kids can contact, 14% on picture texting and 31% on Internet use.

Source: Intel

"My life is rooted in technology, but because I don't want to miss real relationships, my attitude is everything in moderation," says Janet Stauble, 27, social media community manager at in Jupiter, Fla.

When Stauble walks her dogs, she deliberately leaves her cellphone at home. "I love that I can shoot a picture off to friends by text or a Facebook update, but at the same time, I want to be sure I can have time to myself," she says.

Frank Rice, 67, is in love with his PDA, but he isn't a fan of the way people text while walking and bump into him without apologizing.

"Overall, my attitude toward technology is I can't wait to see what's going to happen tomorrow," says Rice, a telecommunications consultant in Atlanta. "But I also grew up walking in the woods with my father, who showed me how to spot mushrooms that wouldn't kill you. We need more of that these days."

In Franzen's speech, titled "Liking Is for Cowards. Go for What Hurts," he lamented facile infatuations with tech devices (as a BlackBerry fan, he included himself in that crowd), contending that "the ultimate goal of technology is to replace the natural world that's indifferent to our wishes — a world of hurricanes and hardships and breakable hearts, a world of resistance — with a world so responsive to our wishes to be, effectively, a mere extension of the self."

Relationships are intact
The writer isn't commenting on his controversial speech; his book agent says everything the author wanted to impart on the topic is in his address. But Franzen is far from alone in analyzing our current addiction to technology. One recent survey indicates that, contrary to Franzen's argument, the ultimate byproduct of technology may be to take us outside ourselves.

The study by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project suggests that those heavily invested in online relationships tend to be more altruistic offline than the unwired crowd. Specifically, Pew found that 80% of Internet users participate in voluntary organizations, compared with 56% of non-Internet users. "It's clear technology does not negatively impact our friendships or our engagement with the world," says project director Lee Rainie.

He says human beings have been "shifting signal-sending processes" for centuries and that our mushrooming technological bounty simply means getting used to new codes and signals.

"What stands out today as a gesture is the handwritten note or shutting off your phone to sit and talk with someone," Rainie says. "We're navigating new spaces with new norms of etiquette."

Etiquette is in fact a huge part of this tech love debate. No one is pining for the inconvenient days of the rotary pay phone; what is being objected to is the intrusive nature of our gizmos.

Many companies already mandate that some meetings be "topless" (no laptops or PDAs), while children's camps often require that portable electronic devices be left at home. Just recently, lawmakers in the Michigan towns of Royal Oak and Sterling Heightsvoted to ban all digital communication between city council members during meetings. The move was made to discourage any deal-making that the public could not hear.

A survey this year by chipmaker Intel revealed that 91% of adults have seen people misuse mobile technology, and 75% say mobile manners are worse today than in 2009. "We haven't yet worked out for ourselves, our families, communities and societies what all the right kinds of behaviors and expectations will be," says Genevieve Bell, head of interaction and experience research at Intel Labs.

David Polk found similarly high numbers in conducting his annual Professionalism in the Workplace study for the Center for Professional Excellence at York College of Pennsylvania, where he also teaches.

"The kids I see in my classes are part of a generation that expects to be always reachable, and as a result, they tend to text, surf the Internet and even take calls at inappropriate times," says Polk, who runs the Polk-Lepson Research Group.

In his 2010 survey of 430 human resource professionals, the majority reported that younger employees text (78%), use the Web (77%) and make personal cellphone calls (72%) when they should be working. When Polk asked the participants if they would describe those staffers as unfocused, 20% said yes, a jump from 6% in 2009.

"For the younger generation, it's clear tech and social media are ruling their lives," says Polk. "They just can't seem to go a few minutes without checking in."

Few in this tech love debate will argue that what's being sacrificed at the altar of technology is solitude.

Being connected means never having to be alone — and that's a shame, says Mark Bauerlein, author of The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future, a deliberately provocative title that has won its author public boos and even death threats.

"Solitude is important," says Bauerlein, agreeing with Franzen's argument that getting truly involved with a person or a cause often is messy and painful, but ultimately richly satisfying. "Our tech tools make everything so easy. What that means is in a person's formative years, there's no pain and no gain."

Bauerlein laments the erosion of reading and writing skills in the age of txt msgs and says students at his lectures complain when he scolds that "99% of what happens to you is of no interest to anyone" and "online friendships aren't real friendships."

"Kids say I'm unpleasant and that I don't understand them, but what I want is a dialogue with them, and they're too busy e-mailing each other," he says. "My concern is that a society in which a younger generation is not involved in a constant dialogue with the older one is inherently dangerous. Look what happened in the '60s."

Means to same end

But is there really that big a generational divide? In the '60s, there was a stark contrast between staid Eisenhower-era parents and LSD-dropping hippie offspring. Today, Facebook and Twitter are hardly the exclusive domain of the young.

Though the Gen Y crowd may indeed process and relay signals differently from the pre-cellphone gang, they don't differ all that much from their parents, says T. Scott Gross, an Austin-based consumer research expert who constantly engages with twentysomethings.

"I find that deep down, these kids are not as obsessed (with tech) as we think they are," Gross says. "Sure, they may not be that well-read, and you can tick them off by leaving them a note in cursive, but overall, this is a poised, articulate generation who use a different set of skills to accomplish the same thing an older generation did."

Gross loves one particular anecdote from a recent focus group he conducted. A woman in her 30s said her husband wasn't particularly talkative, but he texts that he loves her many times a day. "There is no lumping technology, pro or con, into one boat," he says.

Just as there's no turning back the tech clock, says Peter Sealey, a longtime Silicon Valley adviser and founder of the Sausalito Group consultancy.

"It's a strained argument that we need to be careful where technology is taking us, because we're never going back to Walden Pond," says Sealey, who is passionate about his iPhone.

"When Gutenberg started printing, there were negative repercussions, things being printed that people thought were outrageous," he says. "As with all tech, it's a one-way street."

Go unplugged

So where does that leave us on the question of tech love? On the one hand, we have to take the good (momentous revolutions fueled by Twitter) with the bad (senseless deaths as a result of drivers being digitally distracted at the wheel). On the other, we have the power to enjoy our tech toys while at the same time acknowledging their boundaries. We can, in a word, just turn it off.

That's the approach of telecom expert Rice, who says he continues the tradition his father started and often takes his thirtysomething nieces and nephews into the nearby Georgia woods to hunt for mushrooms, where the only buzzing comes from bees. "I'd like to think that at some point, people will realize how special it is to truly communicate with another person, one on one, without technology," he says.

So maybe author-turned-bird-lover Franzen has a point. Maybe the best way to make sure technology's magnetic march doesn't trample our social instincts is to take a walk in the woods and leave the smartphone/tablet/laptop in the car.

After all, love them or hate them, those shiny, beckoning gizmos aren't going anywhere.

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