Tuesday, February 26, 2013

A Scary Future for Personal Relationships?

I’m sure I’m like many others when I say I have a love-hate attitude towards new technology. I can’t deny that my work as a writer and a telecommuting accountant has been made much easier by the advent of word-processors, emails and online publication, but at the same time I feel uncomfortable about the way society seems to be shifting towards an ever increasing use of technology in personal relationships. That might explain why I found the book ‘Alone Together’ by Sherry Turkle such a fascinating, if rather sad, read. 

Turkle, who was described by the Financial Times as “perhaps, the world’s leading expert on the social and psychological effects of technology”, looks at the ways relationships are changing due to email, texting and robotics. She cites interviewees who would rather deal with emails or texts rather than phone calls or face to face interaction: you have more time to consider your response, and it’s not so awkward to decline invitations. Ironically, however, this apparent benefit also brings with it the anxiety of feeling that you always need to respond immediately no matter what else you are doing.

Having seen an increasing number of parents either pushing their children in a stroller or walking with them while using a cell phone, it didn’t surprise me to read of teenagers who, after a childhood with parents whose lives were dominated by cell phones and text messages, hunger for personal attention from them.  People are quick to debate the effects a working mother has on a child and its development, but shouldn’t we be worried by this even more pervasive form of distraction?

Unfortunately nowadays, physical presence does not guarantee a person’s mental availability. Who hasn’t felt angry at a companion whipping out their cell phone in a social situation with the apology, “Sorry, I must just take this.” Why must they? Not so long ago if you were away from the home or office that call would have to wait. What has suddenly made it so important now?  It’s not as if they are going to miss the call completely. Isn’t that what Voice mail is for? And as far as I know, a text does not disappear until you delete it.

Turkle also looks at how people use game sites and social networks as a way of creating an image of themselves which reflects the person they would like to be rather than the one they are, and at how, in particular, children and the elderly, relate to robots as companions. Surely there has to be more satisfying ways of boosting an individual’s confidence than having to create a false virtual persona. Likewise, what kind of world are we creating when people come to prefer robots over people because, as some of the interviewees said, ‘a robot will always be there’ and ‘we never know how another person really feels’?

Turkle’s research makes compelling reading and raises interesting questions about how future generations will interact with each other on all levels. Personally, I’m not too happy with the direction the more social forms of  technology seem to be leading us in, so I take some comfort in the research which shows some young people are becoming disillusioned with the constant need to be online, even daring to switch off their cell phones!    

Who knows, in a few years time we might look back and see this always-connected craze as just that, a fad that had its moment and disappeared. Or maybe we’ll be reminiscing about how people used to gather together to socialize ‘back in the old days’.

 This blog was originally posted on Scarsdale Patch 

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