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Alone Together: Socializing through Technology

25 January 2015

We’ve already looked at the first half of Alone Together, which focused on how people are increasingly socializing with technology, especially with artificially-intelligent robots. The second half covers how people are increasingly socializing with each other through technology.

Except maybe for those who stay at home all day talking only to robots, it’s obvious that ever-advancing technology has had a huge impact on how we communicate with each other. What might not be obvious is to what extent we are becoming dependent upon technology for communication, and either consciously or subconsciously avoiding traditional in-person conversations, and even telephone conversations, pushing as much as possible into the asynchronous world of electronic messaging.

Many people interviewed delight in constantly receiving messages; every incoming message is something new to look at. Even if the messages in fact interrupt something else they were doing, it doesn’t matter:

“I’m waiting to be interrupted right now,” one says. For him, what I would term “interruption” is the beginning of a connection.

Some not only relish constant communication from others, but rely on it to help shape and determine their own thoughts. When faced with an opportunity to feel upset or sad, sending and receiving text messages with a friend can be used to solidify what exactly is the right emotional response. But there’s no time for a telephone call or an in-person conversation; they feel lost without immediate input over text messages.

Not too many years ago, friends and family routinely chatted with each other over telephone. Now, a telephone call is often viewed as a last resort; emails and text messages are so much more convenient and less intrusive, with a telephone call requiring more personal attention from both parties.

Tara, a fifty-five-year-old lawyer who juggles children, a job, and a new marriage, [says that] “When you ask for a call, the expectation is that you have pumped it up a level. People say to themselves: ‘It’s urgent or she would have sent an email.’” So Tara avoids the telephone. …

Randolph, a forty-six-year-old architect with two jobs, two young children, and a twelve-year-old son from a former marriage … explains, “Now that there is e-mail, people expect that a call will be more complicated. Not about facts. A fuller thing. People expect it to take time — or else you wouldn’t have called. …

A widow of fifty-two grew up on volunteer work and people stopping by for afternoon tea. Now she works full-time as an office manager. Unaccustomed to her new routine, she says she is “somewhat surprised” to find that she has stopped calling her friends. She is content to send e-mails and Facebook messages. She says, “A call feels like an intrusion, as though I would be intruding on my friends … After work — I want to go home, look at some photos from the grandchildren on Facebook, send some e-mails and feel in tough. I’m tired. I’m not ready for people — I mean people in person.”

As convenient as electronic messages may be, people are increasingly consumed by them, giving attention to the incoming notifications on their phone over people that are physically present, regardless of the urgency of the messages. The attention that children receive from parents seems particularly diminished: they may be present physically — pushing the child on a swing, eating dinner at the table, watching a football game on television — but often with one hand firmly grasping a smartphone, and their attention elsewhere.

Audrey complains of her mother’s inattention when she picks her up at school or after sports practice. At these times, Audrey says, her mother is usually focused on her cell phone, either texting or talking to friends. Audrey describes the scene: she comes out of the gym exhausted, carrying heavy gear. Her mother sits in her beaten-up SUV, immersed in her cell, and doesn’t even look up until Audrey opens the car door. Sometimes her mother will make eye contact but remain engrossed with the phone as they begin the drive home. Audrey says, “It gets between us, but it’s hopeless. She’s not going to give it up. Like, it could have been four days since I last spoke to her, then I sit in the car and wait in silence until she’s done.

Audrey has a fantasy of her mother, waiting for her, expectant, without a phone.

A constant barrage of incoming messages not only has an impact on interacting with other people in the room, but on completing work in the room:

“I’m trying to write,” says a professor of economics. “My article is due. But I’m checking my e-mail every two minutes. And then, the worst is when I change the setting so that I don’t have to check the e-mail. It just comes in with a ‘ping.’ So now I’m like Pavlov’s dog. I’m sitting around, waiting for that ping. I should ignore it. But I go right to it.” …

An art critic with a book deadline took drastic measures: “I went away to a cabin. And I left my cell phone in the car. In the trunk. My idea was that maybe I would check it once a day. I kept walking out of the house to open the trunk and check the phone. I felt like an addict, like the people at work who huddle around the outdoor smoking places they keep on campus, the outdoor ashtray places. I kept going to that trunk.”

But shifting conversation to electronic messages is not without clear benefits as well. Children growing up and moving away from home are able to keep in frequent contact with their parents, easing the transition for everyone. While placing dozens of phone calls to your parents might seem excessive, sending dozens of text messages feels perfectly normal.

With so many omnipresent means of communication, we never have to be alone. But on the other hand, we may never learn how to be alone: how to think thoughts entirely of our own, how to occupy ourselves without the input from others. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? While younger people are generally enamored with communications technology, some are starting to feel like maybe life before technology had something better to offer:

Hillary is fond of movies but drawn toward “an Amish life minus certain exceptions [these would be the movies] … but I wouldn’t mind if the Internet went away.” She asks, “What could people be doing if they weren’t on the Internet?” She answers her own question: “There’s piano; there’s drawing; there’s all these things people could be creating.”

The important takeaway here may be that communications technology, like technology in general, can be both used and abused. It’s up to us to use it wisely, and not let it overtake our lives. But, as several interviewees reported, technology has a strong pull to it, often stronger than we are capable of resisting. It takes deliberate thought and action to not be drawn too far in.

With lives lived so much online, does the next generation of technology users have any qualms about privacy? It appears that they are neither in favor of nor dismissing online privacy, preferring to not think about it much:

The media has tended to portray today’s young adults as a generation that no longer cares about privacy. I have found something else, something equally disquieting. High school and college students don’t really understand the rules. Are they being watched? Who is watching? Do you have to do something to provoke surveillance, or is it routine? Is surveillance legal? They don’t really understand the terms of service for Facebook or Gmail, the mail service Google provides. They don’t know what protections they are “entitled” to. They don’t know what objections are reasonable or possible. …

There is an upside to vagueness. What you don’t know won’t make you angry. Julia says, “Facebook and MySpace are my life.” If she learned something too upsetting about what, say, Facebook can do with her information, she would have to justify staying on the site. But Julia admits that whatever she finds out, even if her worst fears of surveillance by high school administrators and local police were true, she would not take action. She cannot imagine her life without Facebook.

The book concludes with some thoughts that purposefully keeping some of our most cherished thoughts and conversations in analog form may be in our own best interest; for example, hand-written letters received from dear friends and family seem to hold more emotional value than text messages, and the very act of writing and sending a letter suggests putting more of yourself into the communique than sending an email.

Whatever your persuasion of communications technology use, taking the time to consider the thoughts and situations chronicled in Alone Together should give some additional perspective from which to more strongly base your opinions. A very enjoyable a thought-provoking read.