Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Real people or Screen people

I just recently read two excellent books that dealt with the trend of people spending time on the Internet or texting in preference to real conversations with people.

The first one, Feed, took a fictional approach to the topic with teenagers having the Internet literally fed into their brains at all times and how their lives differed from ours, especially when the feed malfunctioned and they were back to 'normal.'

Lots of great teen speak that the author picked up by eavesdropping on kids in the mall and extrapolating into the future.

The second one, 'Alone Together' was a non-fiction book written by an MIT Artificial Intelligence professor and it showed the types of experiments being performed that showed the trend towards people preferring robot company and moving away from face to face or even phone conversations in preference of texting and other 'controlled' conversations.

In this one the author answered the question I've always struggled with: Why do teenagers prefer to text than call? It always seemed a step backward in technology to the time of the telegraph before the telephone was invented. Her explanation is that teenagers are intimidated by the immediacy and lack of control found in a phone call and prefer to be able to massage their words before sending them. 

The books got me thinking, what should we do, if anything, about these trends? Should we try to head them off? I'm all in favor of the increased efficiency brought to us by mobile technology and the Internet. Being able to complete a business deal while driving to another customer. Finding the restaurant where you want to eat and read reviews by other diners while someone else is driving to town. Then clicking on directions and the menu. These are all great advantages. 

I know there are all kinds of rules about Internet safety and not texting while driving. This post won't deal with those issues. I'm just going to concentrate on social interactions with the presence of screens. What is polite and what is not. I'm thinking about rules we've imposed at home and what rules we should perhaps add to this list. 

The rules are not designed to impose my old-fashioned set of norms on my children. Instead, I am keenly interested in raising my children to fit into future society. If they don’t learn how to have a phone or face-to-face conversation as children, what are they going to do when they go for an interview, try to sell their product to a customer, meet their future in-laws?

Multitasking is a skill that can work in certain situations like when you are using different parts of your brain to accomplish different tasks. All of us can walk while having a conversation, eat while listening to music, even play simple video games like Brickbreaker while listening to a book on tape. But young people think they can multitask with the same area of the brain. This has been tested repeatedly and found to be a fallacy. You cannot effectively text someone while having a conversation with another person. You can’t do your homework efficiently and correctly while maintaining seven different chat sessions and listening to loud music. If you think you are one of these rare exceptions who can do that, submit yourself to testing and you’ll be surprised.

What follows is my first draft of a set of rules. Please comment with your impressions of these rules and any additions you would make.

Screen rules
  1.  Live people are more important than people communicating to you via screens.
  2. No screens at the dinner table unless your family allowed TV there 20 years ago.
  3. If  something comes up in a conversation where the answer can be found by checking a screen, ask permission first.
  4. When spending time one-on-one with someone and your phone interrupts, answering demotes the real person in importance to the one on the screen. (That’s OK if it’s your mother or your boss, not OK if it’s just another friend.)
  5. If you’re in a group and the conversation can go on without you while you check the screen, that may be OK but be subtle.
  6. No screens while attending religious services, a concert, a show or a movie.  You can always tell people ‘gtg’ for a couple of hours and get back to them when you leave the area.
  7. No screens while attending a lecture unless the lecturer asks you to look something up as part of the class.
  8. Enjoy your time when in a special event. No need to look at it through your camera.
This last one is a personal pet peeve. Remember the opening ceremony of the Olympics? All these athletes were at the pinnacle of their career. They march into the stadium in front of billions of people and what are they mostly doing? Rather than enjoying themselves, they are recording the crowd and fellow athletes on their cell-phone cameras! People! Have your buddy at home record the show and post it on your Facebook page. Enjoy the moment! You deserve it!

What are your thoughts? I'd love to see some additions to this and we can come up with the '10 communication commandments.'


  1. RE: No screens during religious services. Our church just purchases new hymnals. And ironically one of the available options was a downloadable format for worshippers hand-held devices!

  2. Replies
    1. Probably a good deal cheaper for your church than actual bound hymnals but it's a slippery slope. How many people are going to update their Facebook status before, during or after a hymn? Or tweet, "Singing 'Coming thru the rye.'" Or even level up in World of Warcraft.

      No, I think it's a mistake. Let me know how it works out for, Kevin.