The Impact of Technology on Social Interaction

Posted on August 8, 2007
Filed Under Culture & Technology |

I’m fascinated by human interactions. I’m also, of course, fascinated by technology and media, which means that I’m extremely fascinated about how they all relate to each other. The social networking phenomenon, for instance, has been of great interest to me because of how it has impacted the way we connect and relate to each other (both positively and negatively).

So it was with great intrigue that I read this weekend’s New York Times article entitled “What’s Good for a Business Can Be Hard on Friends.” It details the impact cell phone plans are having on relationships. An unintentional side effect of cell phone calling plans which typically encourage calls “in-network” is that relationships between friends and acquaintances are being altered based upon which network individuals find themselves in. Times reporter Angel Jennings explains:

A month ago, Brandy McDowell sat down with her longtime friend, Kezia Chandler, and told her she had switched cellphone carriers. Their relationship has not been the same since.

Now, they barely speak. Ms. Chandler rushes Ms. McDowell off the phone when she calls during her lunch break. And long conversations about schoolwork and relationship woes have been reduced to sound bites.

Maybe they should blame the cellphone carriers. The carriers, after all, set up plans that encourage subscribers to talk mainly to people in the same network. The companies say they are simply trying to recruit and retain customers.

But what was set up as a purely business strategy is having an unintentional social effect. It is dividing the people who share informal bonds and bringing together those who have formal networks of cellphone “friends.”

Steve Bufford, 24, of Manhattan, said he constantly monitored his out-of-network minutes. And he had to cut back on conversations with a few of his friends — “until the weekends, then we become the best of friends in the world,” he said.

As for Ms. McDowell and Ms. Chandler, the two who rarely talk on the phone now, they say they visit each other more.

“We used to talk every day all day,” said Ms. McDowell, a 21-year-old student at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. “Now I only hear from her after 9 p.m. so she doesn’t use her minutes.”

Elisa Joris, 23, of Walled Lake, Mich., said that was exactly what happened to her. She became a Sprint customer in high school when her mother added her to the family plan. Now, seven years later, she stays with the carrier because the people she talks to the most — her brother, her former boyfriend and best friends — are all on the network.

Ms. Joris said that because she no longer shared minutes with her parents, she signed up for the plan with the lowest cost even though it had the fewest minutes. For $30 a month, she gets 300 daytime minutes, but it is the free calling within the network that makes the plan a real bargain.

In June, she used only 200 of those peak-hour minutes. But, she said, she spent more than 800 minutes on the phone with other Sprint customers.

“I have seen bills where I have used 1,500 minutes,” she said. “I try not to talk to those who don’t have Sprint. I don’t have minutes to waste.”

One might be able to successfully argue that the cell phone has made the largest impact on the ways we communicate with each other in quite some time. Cell phones have not only made 24/7 connectivity a reality, they have made an indelible mark on our , fashion, language, behavior and even our safety. Cell phones have impacted entire countries by giving those in developing nations communications tools which had previously belonged exclusively to the “developed” world. The cell phone is helping drive economic growth in many developing nations and there are now more than 2 billion cell phones worldwide. 80% of the world’s population lives in an area with reception. For many, the cell phone is the only connection to the outside world and the Internet.

The social impact of cell phone calling plans on human relationships is just the latest in a long line of technology-driven changes society has experienced. Technology has played a key role in shaping society and human interactions since the dawn of civilization. From the advent of agriculture, which moved us away from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and facilitated the rise of city-states and nation-states, to the Industrial Revolution, whose dramatic shifts in labor and consumption altered the organization of society and the family, new technologies have precipitated major changes in the way society is structured and how individuals interact. The modern technology revolution, however, is arguably the most far-reaching. We now have a virtual communications network in a globalized society and this virtual network allows us to transcend space and time with our interactions.

There can be no doubt that technology has provided significant social benefits. Cell phones enable us to “reach out and touch someone” at any moment, regardless of where we are. Email and text messaging make it easy to communicate with others and to stay in contact. In today’s fast-paced world, an email or text message may be the ideal method for two people to connect. Social networking services provide a means for friends and family to stay connected regardless of how far apart they’re located. Relationships which otherwise may have died can be kept alive. We can interact with others a world away, giving us unprecedented access to different cultures, including their stories, unique perspectives and wisdoms. In short, the world has never been smaller and that’s a great thing.

On the other hand, the same technologies that provide so much benefit do have their downsides. On a daily basis, it’s difficult to avoid a cell phone user engaging in some rude behavior that reflects a complete lack of respect for the people he or she is around. The ease with which emails and text messages can be sent often means that our “conversations” with others are more fleeting and shallow. It’s also very easy to say things that probably wouldn’t be said in person, and because there are no contextual clues with emails and text messages (vocal intonations, facial expressions, etc.), it’s easy to misinterpret the meaning of a communication. Social networks are promoting overinflated egos and enable individuals to take on Internet personalities that are completely disassociated from their personalities in real life.

A recent study (full study PDF) found that despite the fact we’re more connected than ever, we’re becoming more isolated than ever. Obviously technology is not the only contributor to this trend, but perhaps the tools which make communication so easy are failing us to a certain extent because they encourage and promote less meaningful communication. If language and thought are inexorably linked, one must also consider the impact of today’s technologies on how we think and perceive the world around us. I could probably devote an entire book to these subjects, but for now I’ll say little more than: it’s interesting to see that the technology that connects us is, in many ways, driving us apart. There are many dichotomies in modern society and this is certainly one of them.

I’m far from a luddite (I do have a blog), but despite my love for technology, I still prefer real-life interactions to virtual interactions. There’s nothing like putting the rest of the world aside and spending time with another person. Discussing what you did last week or engaging in a philosophical discussion about the meaning of life. Seeing a smile. Hearing a laugh. Whether it’s meeting up with an old friend for lunch or getting to know somebody new over hot chocolate, I’ll never be convinced that the richness and enjoyment of interacting with another human being can be fully realized through technological means. Technology isn’t designed for this and as long as we recognize that technology is not a substitute for real human connection, we should be fine. Unfortunately, I think we increasingly fail to acknowledge this.

What concerned me most about the New York Times article is not that technology is having a profound impact on human interactions in both positive and negative ways, as this has always been the case, but that it seems, for many, to have taken control of human interactions. When we limit our contact with someone else because they’re “out of network” for instance, it signals that instead of leveraging technology to interact in more meaningful ways more frequently, we’re letting technology impede such interactions. Whether it’s because a cell phone plan makes it economically impractical to speak with certain friends or because email and text messaging make it easy to avoid difficult discussions that would normally be best held in person, it’s clear that technology is often harming our ability to communicate effectively and that’s not good for the health of our society, culture and us as individuals. One of the more disturbing aspects of all of this is that many intelligent technologists have convinced themselves that technology can do no harm and that today’s connected world can only be a boon, not a bane, for society. I’m not naive and don’t expect technology to create a modern utopia. But let’s not pretend that the great technologies we use on a daily basis to interact are all about fostering connection, building community, better organizing the world’s information, democratizing content, etc. as much as they are about making money.

Technology can help us build and maintain meaningful relationships with the people we care about. It doesn’t have to distort the meaning of the word “friend” by equating it with a MySpace or Facebook profile. Technology can increase the frequency of our interactions with others. It doesn’t have to decrease the substance found within those interactions. Technology can help us express our creativity and passions. It doesn’t have to promote digital narcissism and fake personalities. Technology can help build community. It doesn’t have to separate us from our local community.

Technology is agnostic. We decide how we use it, and thus technology to a certain extent serves as a mirror, reflecting back to us an image of our own collective selves. Esoteric philosopher Rudolf Steiner said “A healthy social life is found only, when in the mirror of each soul the whole community finds its reflection, and when in the whole community the virtue of each one is living.” Somehow I imagine that Rudolf wouldn’t find T-Mobile’s “5″ Plan to be very healthy.

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5 Responses to “The Impact of Technology on Social Interaction”

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