Des Moines Register 11-14-06 Intended to connect us, technology divides instead

Des Moines Register
Intended to connect us, technology divides instead
A recent study by the Internet tracking firm Hitwise found that the online social
network has become the country's most popular Web site,
accounting for 4.46 percent of all Internet visits in the United States during the
week ending July 8.
A Duke University study also recently reported that Americans have fewer close,
personal friends than they used to. And a Rutgers study reports that handheld
digital devices such as Blackberries can be harmful to mental health and warns
companies about employee addiction to technology.
These three seemingly unrelated studies are very much interrelated. Together,
they shed light on how society's greater connectivity is yielding fewer meaningful
Having just moderated two national discussions with college faculty and staff
focusing on Facebook, MySpace and other social-networking sites, I've identified
five reasons for today's growing "interpersonal divide":
1. Changing value systems.
The more we use technology, the less time we have to nurture our primary
relationships. We bought computers, iPods, Blackberries and cell phones to
enhance our relationships with family, friends and co-workers. Instead, these
devices are eroding our personal and professional relationships. The reason is
simple: Communication systems alter value systems. We're spending more time
communicating via social networks and ignoring those in our immediate
environment. Meanwhile, television viewing devours leisure time. Of course we're
lonely or distracted most of the day. We're searching for meaningful relationships
in front of screens and monitors.
2. Time spent with gadgets.
People need to take an inventory of technology at home and work. Add to TV
and PC use telephones with separate lines and caller identification, family cell
phones, voice mail, laptops, Web and video cameras, Internet stations, handheld devices — from iPods to GameBoys — gaming consoles, DVD and MP3
players, CD stereo systems, cable and satellite access and so much more. We
leave home and go to work and use the same gadgets again. Many of us,
including students, are depressed because of stress or addiction. We seek selfhelp using the same digital gadgets that are the source of our problems, visiting
Web sites or social networks instead of resolving issues interpersonally, face to
3. Digital displacement.
Technology displaces people. On campus you hear people in restrooms using
cell phones to make a date or break up. Helicopter parents telephone their sons
and daughters throughout the day, forgetting that such an intrusion displaces us
to the extent that many lie. Students say, "I'm on my way to the library to study,"
when they are really heading to a bar. The assumption of stronger family ties
based on frequency of contact fails to factor in the falsehoods of digital
4. Accumulated effect of mediated communication.
We are seldom out of touch with anyone anywhere anymore. Instead of falling
into the "digital divide," we've fallen into an interpersonal one instead. An
electronic gadget or portable computer offers instantaneous access to family,
friends and colleagues, and yet, despite such contact, we feel empty unless we
have a device in our hand as a crutch. The more devices, the better we should
feel. But like obsessive shopping, such activity only masks something deeper
denied within. We are losing the ability to interact meaningfully with others, face
to face, because we opt for on-demand rather than physical contact, relying on
technology to mediate our thoughts, words and deeds. And we pay a price, not
only in access fees but in feelings.
5. Squandered time.
We use cell phones while driving in rainstorms, chatting with friends while our
toddlers are in the backseats of vans being entertained by Disney DVDs. We are
teaching our children to elevate convenience, which technology can provide, over
substance, which it cannot.
Technology promised to give us a global village. Instead, we got a global mall.
The medium no longer is the message. It's the moral, too.
MICHAEL BUGEJA is director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and
Communication at Iowa State University.