Sunday, May 9, 2010

Technology advances continue to change our social lives

Previoiusly published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 5/9/10

Last week I noticed each of my colleagues staring into their computer screens. It struck me how much time we spend doing that. Not everyone is doing the same thing, some are answering e-mails (20 years ago it might be answering telephone messages), some are reading (used to be print journals, books, and newspapers), and some are grading (that too used to be on paper).

Four years ago my university supplied me with a laptop computer. It took me nearly three years to begin using it like one. Now, instead of a briefcase stuffed with books and papers, I carry my laptop home every night. Not only is the laptop changing what is in my briefcase, it is also changing our social life. What follows is not a curmudgeonly rant against change. Change is rarely all good or all bad.

Just as television moved Americans out of dining rooms to the “TV room,” computers, too, are changing social life. In just the last few months, I notice that at my home, with three laptop computers, we three typically sit together in the family room with laptops open tapping out a clickity-clack rhythm on the keyboard as we work away the evening. While the three of us share space, we are not really “together” as each of us is engaged in different worlds. With my laptop, my work day now commonly extends until bedtime. Before the laptop, I would descend to the basement, grade papers, and then rejoin the family upstairs. Now I finish the grading and go on to something else. In many ways, I might as well still be in the basement.

There are Internet sites set up for online marriages (I think legally they are called proxy marriages). I’m sure there are circumstances where the bride and groom cannot be physically in the same place and the capability to do this is a godsend. Weddings are being set up with live video streams for those unable to attend. I imagine a receiving line for those physically there and a digital one for those who are not.

I imagine kitschy animated hugs and handshakes, even a virtual dance with the “avatar” bride at the reception.

Facebook already has an “app” where people host a virtual Thanksgiving feast as a fundraiser. We have the capability to join far-flung families to the same digital table with a laptop and Skype connection. I imagine a soldier joining her family for Thanksgiving; mom’s video image at her seat at the table. She could digitally participate in the family’s traditional cranberry juice toast.

Virtual participation in Fourth of July celebrations would be fun. As many families put on their own fireworks shows, family members joining digitally could activate fireworks remotely. With “air cards” laptops could even be taken on boats, and Grandma, who is otherwise confined to a wheelchair, could even experience the point of view of waterskiing again.

We’ve had audio transmitting capability for a long time. It is the computer’s visual capabilities that make it so appealing. We are visual animals. It is why we like to look at pictures of birthday parties and vacations instead of just hearing about them (“a picture is worth a thousand words”).

Social life is founded upon more than two-dimensional visual and auditory interaction however, which is what computer mediated communication is. As we computer-mediate more and more social interaction, we do lose things. Twenty-five years after getting married I still recall the smell of my wife’s perfume (or maybe it was a dryer sheet). Catholic and Episcopal weddings include mass. The incense is part of the experience.

So is touch. A video congratulation is nice, but it is only filler compared to a hearty handshake or a hug. A kiss is not a visual experience. Yet, camera phones have reduced teenage flirting to “sexting.” Reducing desire or a tease to a two-dimensional digital image is a long way from a perfumed note or a cheek caressed.

Interaction is a sensory experience. The basis of social life is interaction among people even when interaction is highly ritualized, like at weddings and holidays. As the two-dimensional, mostly visual, computer-mediated interactions come to underlie more and more of our interaction, it will change the experience of the interaction and thus change our social lives. What would a digital caress feel like?

Just as industrialization changed the taste and nutritional value of fruit and vegetables, information technology is altering the quality of our social lives.

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