Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Does Modern Communication Technology Increase Isolation - or Doesn't It?

Just as some "research" finds that a particular item in your diet is good for your heart, while other "research" finds that the same item is bad for your cholesterol - or something equally idiotic - so we have opposing results of "research" on the topic of whether new communication technologies increase or reduce social interaction.

A widely-reported 2006 study showed that, since 1985, Americans have become more socially isolated: the size of their discussion networks declined, and the diversity of those people with whom they discuss important matters has decreased. Americans have fewer close ties to those from their neighborhoods and from voluntary associations. Internet and mobile phone technologies enable and support social ties that are relatively weak and geographically dispersed, not the strong, often locally-based ties that used to be a part of peoples’ discussion network before such technologies became pervasive. The result is that people are pulled away from traditional social settings, neighborhoods, voluntary associations, and public spaces.

By contrast, the Pew Internet & American Life Project, which does a lot of useful work, has just relesed the results of its "Personal Networks and Community Survey", involving telephone interviews with a nationally representative sample of 2,512 adults. The interviews were conducted in English by Princeton Data Source, LLC between July 9, 2008 and August 10, 2008, on behalf of Princeton Survey Research International.

The survey was undertaken specifically to explore issues that were not probed directly in the 2006 study and other related research: the role of the internet and mobile phone in people’s core social networks.

This Pew survey finds that Americans are "not as isolated as has been previously reported. People’s use of the mobile phone and the internet is associated with larger and more diverse discussion networks. And, when we examine people’s full personal network – their strong and weak ties – internet use in general and use of social networking services ... are associated with more diverse social networks."

The phrasing above seems to suggest that the 2006 study was wrong. However, common sense tells you that the two pieces of "research" were examining different things:

If you relate to a larger number of people they will by definition be more diverse; and if you relate to a larger number of people, as there are only 24 hours in each day, your interactions on average will certainly be less deep. Indeed, your interactions may ALL become less deep.

Common sense also tells you that, if you use the new communication technologies, the possibility of connecting with people in more distant places will reduce the time you have available to relate to people nearer by. You can see this most clearly on any underground, bus or airplane: in the pre-tech days, people chatted much more easily with their (temporary) neighbours. Now practically no interaction takes place with one's temporary neighbours as everyone is too busy either listening to music or chatting with someone far away - and, as the conversation is taking place more or less in public, the conversation can't be about anything very deep. The same thing can be seen in real neighbourhoods, where people tend less and less to know their next-door neighbours and can now link up with people very far away. Equally, people may link with even a larger number of voluntary associations, but they now relate much less actively with any of them.

In brief, we don't need such "research" to tell us what we already know: these technologies have their uses, but they also have their drawbacks. All new technologies are double-edged. What we really need to learn is how to use them well and wisely. That is something for which research cannot be designed. Research leads to mere quantification of specific elements of what is needed for the sort of holistic knowledge on the basis of which life can flourish. And it has long been known that there is a wide gulf between knowledge and wisdom. Sphere: Related Content

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