Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Is modern technology destroying interaction and empathy?

I have mused before on this blog about the impact on new technology on human behaviour.

One example was the way in which it affected the behaviour of my own family. TV was one thing, but then add wife and eldest daughter looking at TV and playing with their laptops, while youngest was playing with the computer in her bedroom. When dinner was ready, wife and eldest would pause to watch TV while eating dinner. Youngest would simply grab food and return to her computer.

I am a naturally gregarious person who likes conversation, so I actually found this quite isolating, especially during those periods when I was working from home. Starved of conversation during the day, wanting to talk, I had no-one to talk too. It was much easier to go to the office area and work on my own computer where at least I had some interaction!

At the office, you see something of the same pattern with email traffic. People’s routines are dictated by a combination of their electronic diaries with email traffic. Instead of popping to a nearby desk to say something, you send an email. With modern workflows, you workflow a document to someone for action, send an email to confirm, and then wait.

On Sydney buses and especially trains, a remarkable number of passengers sit there with ear phones on listening or watching their hand held device or talking or SMSing on their mobile.. No one looks at anyone else. Obviously there are exceptions, a group of chatting school friends is an example, but the base pattern described is pretty accurate. Now there is evidence that all this is affecting the way we think and interact, our basic personalities, our very sense of our own self.

Most of the reports I have seen of the work of Susan Greenfield and Bruce Perry and others on this topic appear to be behind pay walls. This is one example that is not. Much of the reporting is also influenced by the very particular slant of the outlet and the purpose of writing. But if we cut through all that, we find certain features.

First, survey results of teachers suggest that children’s attention spans have become shorter as they opt for screen based activities over conventional reading. This would fit with my observations of work environment.

Much more time has to be spent on packaging material, less time is available for developing and testing the real content to be packaged. Don’t get me wrong here. I have always used diagrams. I did so in my final school exams, I do so today. A simple diagram or flow chart can make it easier for people to understand, while forcing simplification of the author’s thinking. It’s the balance I am concerned with.

Secondly, studies of US university students have found that the level of empathy, the understanding of others measured by conventional tests, among US college graduates has declined by 40 per cent over the last twenty or thirty years, with much of the decline concentrated in the period after 2000.

It’s not possible to make a judgement without reading the original research material, but again this fits with my own observations. Empathy is built through interaction with others and especially those who are in some way different from you. If everybody you mix with is broadly the same, how can you learn to interpret and respond to difference?

To a degree at least, the social structures that used to bring people together in face to face situations have declined. The on-line interactions do not substitute, for we have all seen how they tend to group people based on commonalities. Of course this was true of other interactive mechanisms. It’s a scale question.

From this point, the reporting seems to largely focus on implications, building pyramids of conclusions. I will leave that part of the discussion aside.


Evan said...

Hi Jim I do think the technology we use shape us.

I think it was Churchill who said that, We build our buildings; then our buildings build us.

I think you are an extravert (hope this isn't too offensive). My wife and I are introverts - we are both happy with sending each other email while we are in the same room!

The blogosphere has enriched my life by finding others interested in similar things and developing online 'friendships'. There were few people around with interest in my sorts of things and I don't think it has lead to a loss of face to face friendships or intimacy.

I do think that social media making it easy to talk only to those we agree with is a problem. And leads to all those idiot flame wars on political blogs with each side doing point scoring posts and not engaging much with the topic.

The US decline is perhaps partly due to the increasing obsession with narrow skills and teaching to the exam. As well as the impact of online.

Jim Belshaw said...

If it wasn't Churchill, it should have been! It's a nice line. While I'm not really an extrovert, I agree with you that different personality types respond in different ways. I agree with you too, and very strongly, that the internet allows us to interact in new ways, including finding people with who share our interests even when those are a narrow slice.

But I would still argue my general points!

Anonymous said...

Hi Jim

Just a note for your further musings - only tangentially related to this current post.

I very much feel for the small communities which will be affected by this, but wonder just how much reliance was placed by them upon a 'slick' outer presentation, as opposed to good old country scepticism; shaking the man's hand, and looking him in the eye - as it were.

That said, mustn't preach. There was a recent case of a Cooma-area auctioneer who did just that, yet still managed to take his clients for a wild ride. Your old stomping ground, I think?

Anyway, it is all very sad.


Anonymous said...

On further thought, most probably I'm wrong to blame 'slick marketing'. Maybe this is just a sign of how deep the present recession is biting. Recession? Yes - I'd call it that, and I see it in my own small retirement business, where once clients splashed money, now carefully count the cost of an extra day or two.

I try to feel sorry for the auditors here, having been one myself. But really, unless they were deliberately duped, my hope is that they have adequate insurance.

I'll follow this for a while I think; in the hope that it's very much a one-off, with no wider regional ramifications.


Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks for this, kvd. Like you, it made me very sad. The newspaper report doesn't suggest fraud to me at this point, more a deterioration and perhaps soft loan standards that banksia was not big enough to cope with. It's interesting. I look forward to your reports!

Rummuser said...

I have just returned from two weeks of quality time with long out of personal touch relatives and friends in the South of India. I saw the phenomenon that you talk about everywhere, yet also saw the warm one on one equations in equal measure. It is however true that modern technology buttressed by facebook, google plus etc are making personal contact and conversations redundant and I find that rather sad.

Jim Belshaw said...

Welcome back, Ramana. I'm glad that you had a good time!

I find it all very complicated. I wouldn't be without the new contacts I have made such as you or Neil or the contacts I have renewed such as Winton for the world. And yet! These things have a habit of balancing themselves, so there is still hope.