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.