Is technology really driving us apart?

It’s become almost a cliché barb the anti-smartphone, anti-social media contingent keeps close anytime they see another person in another “social” situation staring at screen: Technology is making us a less social society at best and driving us completely apart at worst.

Those folks have their points, but I fall in the sector that disagrees with the premise.

Luckily, for those who also disagree, we have Mark Oppenheimer’s great piece in The New York Times Magazine addressing this exact question.

Mark writes about the research of Keith Hampton, a Rutgers professor who studies – in general terms – “how digital technology changes our lives” (those are Mark’s words). For Hampton’s dissertation at the University of Toronto, he studied an experiment in the mid-1990s that saw the construction of a wired neighborhood in a Toronto suburb.

Most houses in this new-era neighborhood received high-speed Internet (when dial-up was the common service), advanced software, videoconference technology and a “Napster-like too for music sharing.” For almost two years, Hampton lived in a basement apartment in the neighborhood and observed.

What he saw was striking. People in the wired community interacted with their neighbors more and attended more social events within the community. Hampton also noted that people with the advanced technology were also more adept at solving social issues. This planted the seed for a future study.

At M.I.T. a decade or so later, Hampton and some students got ahold of old P.P.S. tapes from a study conducted by sociologist William H. Whyte in the ‘70s, which observed people in various public places around New York City. From 2008-10, Hampton and a group of students tried to recreate those scenarios of public observation as closely as possible to see if behavior had changed in the past 30-plus years given the boom in technology.

I won’t spell out the details of their experiment or the various issues they faced to recreate the P.P.S. shots – you should read Mark’s piece for that.

What’s interesting to me is a few of Hampton’s conclusions. In observing more than 2,000 hours of film, what Hampton found was that mobile phone use was lower than expected on the steps of the Met (one area of observation) and only 10 percent of people observed in Bryant Park were using their phones. More importantly to Hampton was that the majority of people who were using their phones were alone.

They were waiting to meet up with someone or were passing a little time by themselves. It was rare, in Hampton’s findings, for people in a group to be using their phones rather than associating with one another.

This is a rough study, and rebuttals certainly remain out there to be picked. One sociologist quoted in the piece noted that she has followed countless mothers for blocks who are fiddling with their phones rather than interacting with their children.

And I’d also point out that there is inherent bias with observing any specific place at any specific time. So overall phone usage on the steps of the Met was down. Well, don’t people commonly retire to that location for their lunch break or to read a book for a few minutes and escape the technology that runs seemingly every other part of their lives? Don’t most people who go to parks go there specifically to avoid screens? That seems fair to say.

Which, obviously, doesn’t mean people don’t use their phones at the park and that couples in a restaurant don’t sometimes look at their phones. These things happen, and those proclaiming the dangers of our iPhones and our “Twitters” have merit here.

But I think his quote from Hampton is also acutely accurate:

“We’re really bad at looking back in time,” Hampton said, speaking of his fellow sociologists. “You overly idealize the past. It happens today when we talk about technology. We say: ‘Oh, technology, making us isolated. We’re disengaged.’ Compared to what? You know, this kind of idealized notion of what community and social interactions were like.”

Interaction has changed with the times and the technology, sure, but that’s something far different than saying it has dissipated into a mobile and social abyss, leaving a disengage culture in its wake.

Two other reads to check out

1) I loved this so much: Kevin Baker went to the book club reading of his own novel unannounced – and it was far from the experience he imagined it would be. I can’t even imagine the skin-crawling embarrassment and shame that must wash over you, the author, the moment the first reader rips your book. That feels awkward even from afar.

2) Steph Daniels at SB Nation covered a lot of ground in this Q&A with Anthony and Ottavia Bourdain. Anthony, as you know, is the famous chef, author and food television personality. What I didn’t know was that his wife is a complete badass who competes in MMA. She trains excessively and maintains a strict diet with a husband who eats (almost) anything.

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21 Responses to Is technology really driving us apart?

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