Tag Archives: social uses of smart phones

Reserving Time for Direct Contact

[We are so deep into the digital age that we may not notice that a norm of mediated interpersonal exchange has replaced the direct contact humans in all earlier generations experienced. The norm now is to connect by phone or text–a degrading of the idea of contact that we may hardly notice. The issue is not whether there is usefulness in smart phone technology.  There surely is. It is whether we have taken away one of the key elements required for gaining a degree of social intelligence.]

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For those of us who study human communication, direct face to face conversation is usually the fundamental model for understanding all other forms. When two or more people are in the same space addressing each other, their exchanges are likely to contain all of the critical yardsticks for measuring successful interaction. These essential processes include awareness of the other, the potential for immediate and unfiltered reciprocity in an exchange, and access to all the visual and verbal feedback that comes with direct person-to-person contact. All other channels of communication—including the devices that extend the range of human connectivity—alter or diminish one or more of one of these processes. And though it may not seem like it, altering or reducing a conversational asset is a big deal.

Until the advent of widespread electric telegraphy in the 1850s direct communication with another in the same space has always anchored human communities. The very idea of a sociology of human relationships is mostly predicated on the expectation that we have direct and real-time access to each other.

Even so, the default model for understanding how we maintain our social nature is increasingly at odds with the ways we now live. What has changed most dramatically are the preferences of younger Americans who are less eager to seek out conversation as a problem-solving tool.

We are kidding ourselves if we believe the false equivalency that lets “social media” substitute for living in the social world.

The most interesting research on this subject is from Sherry Turkle at M.I.T., who has been documenting the well-known drift of the young away from direct interaction to alternate channels that enlarge connectivity but diminish communication richness (Reclaiming Conversation, 2015). The platforms are well-known, including Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and other forms. Under the misnomer of “connectivity,” changes in technology and adjustments to them are slowly schooling younger generations to prefer communication that is mediated and intentionally isolating. We are kidding ourselves if we believe the false equivalency that lets “social media” substitute for living in the social world.

Turkle has noted a wholesale flight away from direct conversation and toward electronic messaging.  In the words of many of her interviewees, meeting directly with someone is “risky,” “too emotional,” “an interruption,” and “anxiety producing.” As a high school senior she interviewed observed, “What’s wrong with conversation?  I’ll tell you what’s wrong with conversation!  It takes place in real time and you can’t control what you are going to say.”

Responses like these suggest a desire to escape the burdens of acquiring the essential rudiments of what psychologists sometimes call “social intelligence,” meaning the ability to navigate through many essential and unavoidable relationships that unfold in real time.

It has always been true that some conversations are difficult.  But this kind of face-work is also the essential work of a complex adult life. As Turkle notes,

Many of the things we all struggle with in love and work can be helped by conversation. Without conversation, studies show that we are less empathic, less connected, less creative and fulfilled.  We are diminished, in retreat.  But to generations that grew up using their phones to text and messages, these studies may be describing losses they don’t feel. They didn’t grow up with a lot of face-to-face talk.

Of course there is always a risk among the old to assume that progress has been overtaken by regression. To paraphrase the Oscar Hammerstein lyric from Oklahoma!, it’s easy to believe that “things have gone about as far as they can go.” Even so, it’s worth remembering that forms of mediated communication are usually not additive, but reductive. Texts, e-mails, and even video games start with various fundamentals of communication, but almost always take something away.  It may be immediacy.  It may be full interactivity.  But the most consequential of all is a reduced intimacy that happens when humans are not in the same space breathing the same air.

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Photo Ops

The capacity to take endless numbers of pictures has outstripped most useful reasons for sharing them. 

When I was still a student, I spent part of one fall working for a candidate running for the Senate from Pennsylvania.  If our team was not yet known as one of the gangs that couldn’t shoot straight, we’d soon make a claim for the title.  One event we planned was a simple ‘walkabout’ in downtown Pittsburgh. It’s a conventional campaign move to notify the press and promise them pictures of your guy mixing it up with voters.  But there was a problem with this particular event because we planned it for a Sunday.  That was mistake number one, since the Golden Triangle on weekends was then a ghost town.  Office workers were clearly restored to the suburbs by the end of the of the workweek on Friday.  Pittsburgh was not quite the active American city that it is now.

Nonetheless, we did find some people for the candidate to meet. And without a second thought we moved in to introduce him, even though the few persons around were surprisingly reticent to be photographed.  We had obviously missed the source of their reluctance, which was directly above our heads in the form of a theater marquee. Mistake number two: we were standing in front of a porn theater.  Clearly a photo of the candidate under neon ablaze with a lot of X’s was not a winning political move.  But give these folks staggering out of the theater some credit; they seemed to be as faithful in their Sunday morning attendance as the Presbyterians pouring out of their church down the street.

For this and many other reasons our guy lost, and I returned to the  easier world of teaching and writing about politics.


His vacation-by-proxy has triggered your downward slide toward semi-consciousness.

The phrase “photo op” may have been a common idea then.  But that usage is now too narrow.  Today many of us are in the business of looking for visual opportunities to capture on our phones. That’s bad enough for the rest of us that have to look them, but made even worse by the fact that there is no longer a financial penalty for being a kind of serial shooter.  There is almost no cost associated with producing images on digital media.

So now some of our encounters with friends are. . . how can I put this? . .  photographically impaired.  Instead of a routine conversation, there is too often a moment when the friend reaches into a pocket to pull out a phone. The heart sinks as he thumbs his way to a photo library that is revealed to be indecently large.  How bad can it be?  Perhaps we should be thankful he hasn’t downloaded all of Gone With the Wind.  More likely, the scrolling images remind him of other recent high points he is only too happy to find on his small screen.  Who wouldn’t  want to share the joy of a hummingbird at 40 yards? You feign interest. But he has a lot of pictures.  And if he’s been traveling, he will probably show signs of anticipation at the opportunity to relive his entire vacation. The extended narrative that can come with even the most homely shot can roll out like a kite string. And as all of this happens, his sidewalk reverie is becoming your nightmare. His vacation-by-proxy has triggered your downward slide toward semi-consciousness.

In the analog era it was the case that a long-lost friend might have had a few pictures in their wallet or purse.  If they had kids, they were expected to trot out one per child, even though you could predict that the youngest would always look like Winston Churchill.  You dutifully professed awe at their perfect beauty, and it was quickly over. The few pictures went back in the wallet and a conversation could then continue.

But now many of us think of ourselves as Ansel Adams. The capacity to take pictures has outstripped any functional reasons to share large quantities of them.  A “conversation” built around one’s own snapshots is actually a monologue. And it’s another reason to consider disarming visitors right at the front door. There has to be a nice way to say that there will be no photo ops during their visit. Allow them in, but be sure their miserable tiny screens have been stored out of reach.