- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 16, 2006

Bluetooth in ear, wireless in hand, AirCard in place. Americans are ready to communicate. We’re plugged in, broadbanded, BlackBerried and just a text message away.

We’re also lonelier, working harder, more stressed and even more crunched for time, some technology watchers say. Sorting through e-mails takes time. Dropped phone calls take patience. Remembering how to talk in person takes social skills.

With emerging technology — and it seems a new gadget to make communicating even easier comes out every year — comes an emerging set of social rules, says Gayle Porter, associate professor of management at the Rutgers University School of Business.

“Everything that has good potential also has a dark side,” Ms. Porter says, “and we may not have set up boundaries for what is acceptable. We’re seeing now with the BlackBerry what we saw with the cell phone and the ability to have it with you all the time. Just because you can be in touch doesn’t mean you have to be.”

Ms. Porter says a lot of people in the workplace cannot separate from their wireless devices. She predicts that down the road, there will be a slew of lawsuits as tech addicts blame their employers for their being overwhelmed.

“A number of researchers say technology addiction is real,” Ms. Porter says. “It is the god of all enablers. Now if someone wants to work 24 hours a day, it is easier for them. For people who aren’t able to use technology and still have a life, they will look around to see who they can blame. We think we will be seeing more of this in the court system.”

Don Cole, a 43-year-old Annapolis man, can see how technology overtakes lives. Mr. Cole sells training programs to government agencies. His virtual office is wherever he is. He spends his days with a laptop, two cell phones and several wireless AirCards.

“The AirCards are if, God forbid, I can’t get to a Starbucks [and its wireless hot spot],” he says as he works on his laptop in a downtown Starbucks, of course.

Mr. Cole and his family recently took a vacation to California. The resort where they stayed was in a canyon with no wireless and no cell phone reception.

“Every couple hours, I would walk out to the road, where I could download e-mail,” he says. “It was the most inconvenient thing. I would pass other people doing the same. I can’t stop sending e-mails, even on vacation. If I do, I know there will be a bigger mess when I get back.

“The scary thing is, I am not even frustrated by it,” Mr. Cole says. “It is what it is. It makes me crazy not to know what’s going on.”

Mr. Cole, like millions of other frequent e-mailers, also can see how e-mail is having an impact on his patience for communication. Many people don’t have time for the drawn-out details of a story anymore; just give them the facts in as few words as possible.

“I can just get the message and move on,” Mr. Cole says.

Naomi Baron is a professor of linguistics at American University who studies computer-mediated communication. She says even e-mails have become too lengthy for some people. Text messaging and instant messaging get the point across more quickly — but at a social cost, she says.

“If you ask the students why they choose to text rather than talk, one of the primary reasons is it is faster — they don’t have to go through small talk,” Ms. Baron says.

“There is a growing perception that you can control the conversation. Why not just cut to the chase? There are people who do that in face-to-face communication; we call them rude. But it is not rude if you are texting. We’ve eliminated some of these opportunities for practicing social interaction.”

Rich Ling, a sociologist and author of the book “The Mobile Connection: The Cell Phone’s Impact on Society,” says cell phones also eliminate many interactions that once were part of daily life.

For instance, when you called a friend at home, you might have had to talk to his or her spouse or parents. Now you go right to the individual, again cutting out the small talk, he says. Or at the end of the day, you might have told your family everything that had happened. Now you can contact them directly every step of the way, leaving very little to talk about when you actually see one another.

“People used to see something, put it in their memory and tell their spouse at the end of the day,” Mr. Ling says. “Now the threshold to communication is so low — you see something and then text message. It is like a constant stream of interaction.”

On one hand, people have strengthened the “strong ties” they have with one another by being able to access them at all times. That has been to the detriment of weak ties — the polite and passing acquaintances in the community, Mr. Ling says. There are times when people need those weak ties, he says.

“In situations where you are looking for something, say a job or a new girlfriend, you need the network of weak ties,” Mr. Ling says.

Meanwhile, many Americans say they have fewer close ties than ever — despite having the ability to communicate with so many others so quickly.

In 2004, researchers at Duke University and the University of Arizona asked 1,467 people the same questions as the General Social Survey did in 1985. In 1985, Americans named three people with whom they talked about important personal matters. That number dropped to two in 2004. About 25 percent of those surveyed in 2004 said they had no close confidants — up from 10 percent in 1985. In the 2004 survey, the results of which were released in June, more people said family members were their major or sole confidants.

Duke professor Lynn Smith-Lovin could not pinpoint one distinct reason for the change. One possibility is that people interpreted the questions differently in 2004 than they did in 1985. What people consider important might have changed, while others might not consider e-mailing or instant messaging the same as discussing.

More time working and commuting means less time to make friends in the community, Ms. Smith-Lovin says. Also, people are connecting worldwide via new technology, so they might not feel they need as much face-to-face communication, the researchers said.

Even with all his gadgets, Mr. Cole still prefers to talk in person.

“I think that is the one shortcoming of technology,” he says. “I still don’t believe that any of this replaces human connections.”

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