2010: The year technology replaced talking

When Gretchen Baxter gets home from work as a New York City book editor, she checks her BlackBerry at the door.

“I think we are attached to these devices in a way that is not always positive,” says Baxter, who’d rather focus at home on her husband and 12-year-old daughter. “It’s there and it beckons. That’s human nature (but) … we kind of get crazy sometimes and we don’t know where it should stop.”

Americans are connected at unprecedented levels — 93% now use cellphones or wireless devices; one-third of those are “smartphones” that allow users to browse the Web and check e-mail, among other things. The benefits are obvious: checking messages on the road, staying in touch with friends and family, efficiently using time once spent waiting around.

The downside: Often, we’re effectively disconnecting from those in the same room.

That’s why, despite all the technology that makes communicating easier than ever, 2010 was the Year We Stopped Talking to One Another. From texting at dinner to posting on Facebook from work or checking e-mail while on a date, the connectivity revolution is creating a lot of divided attention, not to mention social angst. Many analysts say it’s time to step back and reassess.

“What we’re going to see in the future is new opportunities for people to be plugged in and connected like never before,” says Scott Campbell, assistant professor of communication studies at the University of Michigan, who studies the social implications of using mobile devices. “It can be a good thing. But I also see new ways the traditional social fabric is getting somewhat torn apart.”

Our days are filled with beeps and pings — many of which pull us away from tasks at hand or face-to-face conversations. We may feel that the distractions are too much, but we can’t seem to stop posting, texting or surfing.

“We’re going through a period of adjustment and rebalancing,” says Richard Harper, principal researcher in socio-digital systems at Microsoft Research in Cambridge, England, and author of the new book Texture: Human Expression in the Age of Communications Overload.

Sherry Turkle, director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self in Cambridge, Mass., wants to remind people that technology can be turned off.

“Our human purposes are to really have connections with people,” she says. “We have to reclaim it. It’s not going to happen naturally.”

Her new book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, suggests that the time is right for reassessment. “You have to have experiences with it before you can ask these questions. You can’t ask in the first five years. You have to see how it plays out,” Turkle says.

She’s worried about what she sees today.

“We’ve come to confuse continual connectivity with making real connections,” Turkle says. “We’re ‘always on’ to everyone. When you actually look more closely, in some ways we’ve lost the time for the conversations that count.”

Connected to your social circle

Sociologist Claude Fischer of the University of California-Berkeley is familiar with dire predictions associated with new technology: He outlined them in his 1992 book America Calling: A Social History of the Telephone to 1940.

“If you go back 100 years, people were writing things about the telephone not unlike people are writing about these technologies. There was a whole literature of alarm — how it’s turning everything upside down,” he says.

In a new book, Still Connected: Family and Friends in America Since 1970, he says the total contact time with friends and family has not changed much in 40 years; there has been a slight decline in face-to-face contact but a substantial increase in other ways of communicating, such as phone and e-mail.

The “major” change is “the idea that you are available to everybody in your social circle at every minute and they are available to you,” he says. “What its consequences and implications are, we don’t know.”

Social psychologist Robert Kraut of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh is among those studying our relationship with technology. “At any moment, you’re dividing your attention between the person in front of you and the person you’re giving snippets of your attention to. We don’t know the net consequence of reducing the quality of the relationship a little bit with the person you’re with while improving or maintaining it with the person you’re electronically tied to.”

Harper says, “Some researchers do worry that connections to other people elsewhere are weakening the connections to people you’re with.”

Adds James Katz, director of the Center for Mobile Communication Studies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., and editor of Mobile Communication: Dimensions of Social Policy, out Jan. 31: “There’s no question that these mobile gadgets are affecting our behavior. There is not a uniform declaration that everyone agrees to as to what this change means. Everybody sees merits and demerits, but whether the effect is good or bad is hotly contested.”

Campbell says mobile phones provide opportunities to coordinate social activities more easily.

“The more people use mobile phones, the more likely they are to see friends and family because it strengthens those relationships,” he says. “It doesn’t take away from how much we see our friends, but it can take away from the quality of the time we spend with people when we’re physically together and using the technology with others.”

The statistics paint a clear picture of dramatic increases in mobile devices. According to a semi-annual wireless survey released in October by the industry trade group CTIA-The Wireless Association, 93% of Americans now use a wireless device or cellphone — and not just for voice calls.

From June 2009 to June 2010, subscribers sent 1.8 trillion text messages (up 33% from the previous year) and 56.3 billion multimedia messages (up 187% from the year before). In its latest monthly report, the Nielsen Co. found that almost 30% of mobile subscribers in the USA have a smartphone such as a BlackBerry or iPhone.

“Mobile telephony is becoming ubiquitous, with access to mobile networks now available to over 90% of the global population,” says the International Telecommunication Union, a United Nations agency.

Campbell says Americans feel these changes so profoundly because we’re just now “truly experiencing this kind of critical mass.”

“It’s not just about the adoption level being high, but this technology has really worked its way into our everyday lives,” he says.

Less than full attention

As with much in technology, some differences may be generational.

Teens are just fine with being together and texting others at the same time, Campbell says.

“There’s no social disruption,” he says. “But across generational lines, there is major disruption.” Adults “are offended and don’t understand why, when the family is trying to spend time together, teens have to be socially someplace else.”

It’s not just happening with parents and teens.

When someone starts texting at a party or a business meeting, it may be taken as in insult by those physically present. When a parent pulls out the BlackBerry to e-mail the office while at home with the kids, the unfortunate message they send to the children may be that “there is someone I’d rather be interacting with than you.”

There are upsides: The increased use of mobile devices does help keep relationships alive, says Kraut, who says cellphones allow people to convert otherwise wasted time (such as that spent walking somewhere) to contact with others.

“It’s multitasking in a way that’s good,” he says. “They need to get someplace, but can have a pleasurable conversation when they’re doing it.”

At the same time, Turkle says, we can no longer assume we have someone’s full attention when we’re physically with them. “We’re saying to each other in one way or another that we can always put each other on pause.”

Sharing space

Like Baxter, more tech lovers are setting limits.

No one had to tell Susan Maushart of Mattituck, N.Y., how consumed by technology her family was. They unplugged for six months, and she recounts the experience in The Winter of Our Disconnect: How Three Totally Wired Teenagers (and a Mother Who Slept With Her iPhone) Pulled the Plug on Their Technology and Lived to Tell the Tale, out Jan. 20.

“We’re connected to everything but one another and it’s completely normal for this time and place,” she says.

Maushart was spurred to act when she looked around the living room and “all I could see were the backs of people’s heads, because they were interacting with their screens.”

At the time, her kids were 14, 15 and 18.

“It was the prime of their teenage years — that last moment when we were going to all be together under that one roof,” Maushart says. “I felt sick at the pit of my stomach that this was going to all dwindle away.”

She says it was liberating to be free of her devices, even though she loves technology.

Others have these mixed feelings, as well.

“There’s no question cellphones somehow make you reachable 24/7, and I don’t like it,” says Prudence Bushnell Boyer of Silver Spring, Md., a lawyer and mother of two daughters, ages 12 and 7.

“Now, they expect you to answer the phone all the time,” she says. “I think it’s disruptive and disconcerting. But my 12-year-old thinks it’s wonderful to be connected all the time.”

Bushnell Boyer says times have changed.

“It used to be if someone was talking to themselves, they were usually not in their right state of mind. Nowadays, you realize they have an earpiece and are talking to someone and not really where they are. They’re not connected to the time or place they’re in,” she says.

Despite her cellphone, BlackBerry, Kindle and the iPad she shares with colleagues at work, Gretchen Baxter says adults are having a more difficult adjustment to the world consumed by technology. She doesn’t thinks kids will.

“They’re so used to it and like everything, they’ll get blasé about it,” she says.

But, Baxter says she has her concerns: “I worry for the kids that they won’t know what it’s like to share a story, to look people in the eyes — to know that sharing a space with someone is all about connecting and not with the technological device.”

2010: The year technology replaced talking – USATODAY.com.

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