Amanda Duncan | Ethnography

The Real Shallows: What Technology is Actually Draining

It’s a common sight now: ear bud in one ear, cell on the other, clicking fiercely away on a Netbook while surfing the web in a WiFi hotspot—the modern man. Completely unaware of his surroundings, he (or she) is blissfully absent from his or her body, sheltered behind the wall that technology provides. It is this wall that goes up the moment we log on, load up, and check in to our mobile devices, the wall that grabs our attention so closely that we lose all awareness of our surroundings. And I would argue that this behavior is becoming so pervasive—and consequently accepted—that it has shifted the dominant discourse about the accepted use of these machines. It is no longer considered rude to text through a lunch meeting, indeed, in some spheres, it is almost mandatory to be constantly connected. This presents an interesting paradox; even though we have the capability now to be more communicative than ever before, we choose to use our technology as a shield to keep the world away from ourselves. As a result, our interactions with the people we know become more and more superficial, one-dimensional.

To investigate this problem, I decided to go about it in several ways. For one week, I decided that I would use as many technologies as possible at the same time. If I was riding the BT, I was constantly texting with my iPod on. If I was in the Dining Hall or Kroger, I was on a Cell phone. I really wanted to see how people reacted to me being hooked up to something else and devoting my attention to the device, and not to them.

Then, to be sure that my observations were not isolated events, I also created a voluntary internet survey on www.survey.vt.edu, which I then asked over 150 VT students take. The survey asked them about technology that they used on a daily basis, and also how they used it. My respondents represented all years of school, and over 30 majors. I hoped that their answers would give me insight beyond my own opinions about technology’s place in our interactions.

My Work in the Field

During my time on technology overload, I observed that my attention to my surroundings, and those in them, was not as sharp as it usually is, and that I was using my devices to isolate me from the world. For instance, I was walking around campus with my ear buds. I ran into a friend while walking to lunch, so I did what I usually do and I pulled an ear bud out so that I could hear them better. Even though I was not in any particular hurry, I couldn’t help but be a little irritated that they had interrupted my ritual of walking while plugged into my music. On other occasions where I ran into people I knew on campus, I didn’t even bother taking the headphones out, since I knew that in a few seconds, we would pass each other anyway, and that no further interaction was needed. I witnessed similar behavior on the BT when one student would board the bus and see their friend. After exchanging greetings, both would put their headphones back in and proceed to ignore their friend for the rest of the ride. Of course, I do not know how well the two knew each other, but the way that they treated each other after the initial conversation seemed to indicate that they knew the other, but not well enough to fill up the bus ride with a conversation, so the technology offered a convenient way to avoid the interaction altogether.

But there were also cases in which my technology simply shut down my ability to process the outside world. One Saturday, I was on the internet when one of my roommates came in and started talking about how she was feeling sick. I was listening to her, and I know that I was responding to her, but to this day, I have no idea exactly what she was saying was wrong with her. The fact that I was only partly engaged in her conversation spoke volumes to me, and really frightened me too. After the case, I asked her if she felt that I was tuning her out,and she said no, but that she wished that I had paid a little more attention to her. If I was that distracted by the computer, what else is possible that technology distracts us from? And this begs the question, is the distraction, and consequently the triviality of our interactions, multiplied when we use more than one at a time?

To test this theory, I decided to go into Kroger armed with my iPod and cell phone. With an ear bud in one ear while I was texting away, I am sure that I looked like a menace with my shopping cart weaving down the aisles. It was quite difficult to navigate while fixated on my phone, and I found myself moving slower to compensate for my distractedness. As a result, my trip took twice as long as it usually does, and even though I had a shopping list, I found when I got home that I had forgotten some things. In addition to all this, I felt that the cashier treated me differently since I was clearly not invested in the brief interaction that I usually have with them. When I would usually exchange pleasantries, I barely glanced up from texting to say that “plastic was fine” and, “that was debit.” While this may be normal for some people, for me, it was cold and distracted, and I felt that it made the usual shallowness of the checkout-line even more so. It made me really want to know what other people thought about technology in their daily lives, and if they too found that it made their interactions with friends more one-dimensional too.

A Digital Survey about a Digital World

In order to figure out what other students thought about technology, I decided to create an anonymous survey that would ask their opinions about technology and its place in their daily lives. I tried to break it up into approximate sections, with the first half aimed at assessing their daily usage of technologies, and the second half aimed at determining their opinions about their devices which they used on a daily basis. I expected that the majority of those that I surveyed would have attitudes similar to me about the use of technology, but sadly, I found that I was wrong in some instances, especially those that related to interactions.

I expected that cell phone daily usage (97%) and computer daily usage (100%) would be high, and I was correct about that. This is probably due to the social and scholastic obligations that being a college student places on us, and I was also surprised that two-thirds (67%) of students claim to take their laptop computers to class every day, but I suppose that this may be due to the fact that I am in liberal arts classes, and many of those surveyed reported being engineers. Of those students who reported that they take laptops to class, 91% of them report that they use them to take notes, at least “rarely.” Just from my interactions with my roommate, I was skeptical of the educational benefit that they will be getting from this form of note-taking, since I would think that there is a greater chance for them to get distracted and tune-out the professor.

I felt even more sure that these students we not really paying attention to the professor when I saw that three-fourths of those surveyed reported that they use their laptops for non-academic purposes in class, with a full third of these respondents saying that they do it “in almost every class session.” Even if their professor were one of the most boring professors to ever teach, without that laptop there, I feel like there would be a more meaningful relationship between the student and the teacher. But with the laptop, and all the temptations that it represents, I think that it very likely that the students are simply tuning the professor out, much as I did my roommate. But it is not simply themselves that they are preventing from making a deep connection. Almost eighty (79%) percent of those surveyed reported that they will watch the web pages that someone seated in front of them accesses, but less than twenty percent (18%) thought that this was rude. And with these people glued into the technologies, it seems unlikely that they will be able to engage with the material that is being presented.

In addition to surfing the internet in class, only 24% report that they never text in class. 36% report that they text “in almost every class session.” And I would bet that they are not texting anyone in the room who would be capable of having a physical conversation with them.

On a more social note, I also asked about how people usually communicated with their friends. 92% of those surveyed said that texting was their primary method of communicating with friends. (Only 4% said that in-person communication was their primary means of communicating with friends.) Among the reasons that were given as to why this was their favor means of communication, speed, convenience, and politeness were involved. (I found the politeness justification interesting, and I think that it has something to do with giving the other person the chance to text back when it is convenient for THEM.) While I don’t think there is anything necessarily wrong with texting, it seems very impersonal, or at least less personal then calling. One person I spoke to said that it seemed awkward when guys she hung out with only texted her, with the implication that more serious guys would want to talk to her. But I think that this is a similar situation to the guys on the BT that I observed; they did not have enough substance to fill a conversation. A text conversation can end at any time—all you need to do is to not respond.

But phone conversations are interesting in and of themselves. Only 32% of the respondents said that they have never used their cell phone while on the BT or in a Dining Hall. Of the other 68%, however, only a third of those feel that people around them are listening to their conversation. However, when actually asked about social eavesdropping, 82% surveyed reported that they will listen in on to at least “little bits of conversations” that they hear someone engaging in, with a quarter of that group saying that they will “listen to all of it.” The technology of cell phones gives us the illusion of privacy that keeps us from picking up on basic social cues from those people who are actually there with us. For example, one of my friends was sitting next to a girl on the BT who was, in graphic detail, describing her weekend exploits to her friend. Even though my friend kept shooting the girl looks, she jabbered on, blissfully unaware that she was making my (very Catholic) friend uncomfortable. With all her attention focused on her digital friend, she was essentially wearing digital blinders that kept her from seeing her surroundings. Would the girl have been doing this if her friend was actually there in person? I doubt it, as she might have been too embarrassed. But with the blinders in place, she was as oblivious to the bus as I was to the other shopping carts in the Kroger.

Finally, I wanted to see if my interaction with my roommate was just an isolated case, or if my “tuning-out” was epidemic. Only 8% of those surveyed said that they never talked on the phone while they were on their computers. This made me wonder—although there is probably no way of telling—what percentage of their brain is focused on this interaction with the person whom they are speaking with, and what percentage is reserved for the computer. When pressed, some of my other roommates said that they had the same thing happen to them: they found themselves responding with “uh huh’s” and “right’s” even though they had no idea what was going on in the conversation since they were so focused on their computers. This made me really think that these devices severely limit our ability to connect in a deep and meaningful way.

What Does it All Mean?

Of course, Facebook and text messages are great tools for keeping up with acquaintances. But how many truly great friendships will ever be made through texting. Like my friend with all the guy texters, when will they ever want to take it to the next level and actually take the risk of an actual conversation. Because that is what I truly think this is all about: the speed of communication and the convenience of it takes out the need to be multi-dimensional; the technology does that part for us. It is much easier to just sit back and have the technology communicate for us.

So what does this mean for the future? I really have no idea. Just from the 153 college students that I surveyed, it seems to not only be inevitable, but also completely acceptable. But I have to think that at some point, there is going to be a tipping point in one direction or another. I for one, find it irritating that technology is able to do this, and I am really making an attempt to not let it get between me and the people who I interact with. But, unfortunately, interaction does go both ways, and I am doing everything I can to get the other person to think about what they are doing too. By doing this, I hope that I will be able to save, just for a little bit, the human interaction that we all seem to need.