At a recent dinner for school friends, the conversation turned to how technology has influenced our lives and relationships in ways we couldn’t have imagined when we were at school more than 20 years ago. This was before everyone had cell-phones and email, let alone Skype, Facebook, twitter and the myriad other technologies that now allow us to connect to one another.
The benefits of using technology easily sprang to mind, including keeping up with family/friends across the world on Facebook and reconnecting with long lost school friends. Later, more sensitive themes emerged.
One woman spoke of Skyping her now-husband to keep the flame alive while they were in a long distance relationship for a year – “we wouldn’t have made it without that”.
Another who has had difficulty conceiving and multiple IVF rounds spoke of the comfortable distance she was able to maintain by being able to communicate bad news via text to multiple people. Internet forums allowed her to share her experiences with others going through similar events.
Another spoke of feeling like an outsider much of her life and technology had allowed her to find people based on her different interests – she was now not confined to meeting people in the same geographic region and felt more comfortable in her own skin.
The downsides discussed can be summed up in a sentence: the rules have changed; consequently it’s hard to know how to behave any more.
In a discussion with a client, the subject of “thank you” emails came up. For the client it was important that when people have helped her, she acknowledges them. When speaking to a lawyer friend about this however, the friend said nothing winds her up more than a thank you email: it clogs her inbox and the opening, reading and deleting takes time. The lawyer friend gets around gratitude by saying “thanks in advance” and resents thank you emails as perfunctory because to her they indicate that the other person hasn’t thought about how busy she is.
It is now very common to have clients ask for my interpretation of emails and texts they’ve received. Emails and texts are notoriously difficult to take at face value; they are often stripped of context and tone can be misinterpreted. Is an email formal because it’s business, or is the person angry and trying not to show it? Understanding emails is an exercise in understanding contexts and the dynamics of the relationship to determine patterns. A related question is what it means when people don’t respond to texts and emails – is this a communication in itself, for instance the person doesn’t like what you’ve said, or is it that they are thinking it over, busy, not reliable, or simply don’t realise your urgency?
There’s also an increase in people using text and emails to say the unsayable. This is best typified by the break-up text. Under what circumstances is this okay? Does it save face for one or both people or point to a lack of courage?
The downsides of this digital territory lead into the question of how technology has shaped us and the way we communicate.
How it has shaped us
Our phones are our offices. We take them everywhere and feel exposed without them. Our connectivity is all pervasive. Sherry Turkle author of Alone Together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other, speaks of young people’s relationship with technology: It has become “like a phantom limb, it is so much a part of them. These young people are among the first to grow up with an expectation of continuous connection: always on, and always on them.”
Because everyone is connected all the time, the pace at which we live has sped up – we expect our texts to be read immediately and returned, with email only slightly slower. It’s common to get a follow-up email asking “did you get my email?” to remind us just in case.
If we’re not careful, we can get overwhelmed very quickly by the sheer amount of information and the pressure to respond; this leaves us in reactive mode much of the time. Many of us become obsessive about answering email; we have to exercise self-control in not checking our emails before bed because of its disruptive effects on sleep.
Increased connection together with more information to process leads us to pay partial attention to a number of things simultaneously. It’s the technological equivalent of talking to people at a party and noticing their attention is constantly diverted by newcomers.
What’s the effect on relationships?
It’s a memory that sticks with me. As a teenager, I had called one of my closest friends for a heart-to-heart. I launched into what was bothering me and soon realised my friend was missing the beat in minimal encourages. It turned out she was watching TV, unable to give the conversation her full attention. The details of the conversation elude me but the feeling of disconnection remained. There is something quite unsettling in noticing that you are not enough. That your presence is on a short leash, tolerated but easily forgettable if something better comes along.
I’ve had the same feeling in recent years, in real-life conversations over coffee catch-ups when people reach for their phones. Of course I am guilty of compulsively checking my phone as well.
Speed, information overload, partial attention – what is this doing to the quality of our conversations? Do we scan conversations in the same way we scan any long article these days, looking for the summary of bullet points at the end?
The questions it raises are about human connection and empathy: What is it like for the other person to be on the receiving end of our impatience? How will the other person feel after this conversation?
I’m aware of clients being hurt by their partner’s mindless checking of the phone during “couple time” or dinner time. According to the Pew Research Centre in the United States, which surveyed more than 2000 people about their use of the internet, 25 per cent of cell phone owners in a marriage or partnership have felt their partner was distracted by their cell phone when they were together. This figure jumps to 42 per cent if the people are aged 18-29.
It is now common to see mums pushing prams while also either talking on the phone or engaging with something on it; dads push their children with one hand while sending messages with the other. According to Turkle’s research, children notice the preoccupation of their parents and key moments of coming together are lost: a child tries to get attention on the playground when they have done something new, a mum doesn’t look up from the phone when picking up the children from school.
How do we live skilfully with technology?
It might be tempting in our overstimulated, always on, scheduled lives to fantasise about the good old days pre-technology. The notion that all we need to do is unplug to get away from it all is a romantic, nostalgic notion. But as with most simple solutions to complex problems, it’s not a very workable solution.
Scholar Danah Boyd, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research and author of It’s complicated: The social lives of networked teens, urges us to think about who we are in relation to technology in the same way that we all have a relationship with food, alcohol, our bodies, our minds, and our thoughts. Her view is that our online lives reflect our offline existence; technology is neither good nor bad in itself but best seen as a tool.
If we are dissatisfied with the amount of screen time we have, this can be a useful marker to do something different.
One of the key ideas in changing behaviour is tracking your current level of that behaviour. What we see across multiple health behaviours from drinking alcohol to keeping a food diary to wearing a pedometer, is that the behaviour changes merely through tracking (awareness) of it. There are apps to track how much you use your phone – you might be amazed at the result.
Whether we have an optimistic or despairing view of technology depends on how consciously we use it. We need to keep in mind who we want to be rather than who we are by default, conditioned by our devices.