The New York Times Magazine had a great story over the weekend with a headline that pretty much explained it: “Technology is not driving us apart after all.” The piece looked at research done by Rutgers professor Keith Hampton, a Canadian sociologist, on whether technology really is causing separation between people, as the conventional wisdom goes.
Hampton and his team decided to recreate a series of ground-breaking experiments performed in the 1960s and 1970s by fellow sociologist William H. Whyte, who sought to study how people used public spaces. In his time, Whyte set up cameras and filmed people congregating in public, taking notes along the way on how they behaved, where they migrated to, how long their conversations lasted, and so on.
His data and methods were ultimately very useful to urban planners, who discovered many facts, such as people don’t really like wide open spaces – they prefer intimate surroundings because they feel more secure. They also learned that public fountains should never be roped off because people like to dip their toes and throw coins into them, and that dense greenery makes places feel unsafe, among other tidbits.
Hampton’s experiments, done between 2008 and 2010, weren’t so much focused on how people were using public spaces, but rather how they were interacting with each other now that they are deep in the throes of the communication revolution. As we so often hear, the ubiquity of smartphones and social media means we’re all burying our heads in an electronic ether at the expense of communicating with the people who are right in front of us.
Hampton wasn’t necessarily buying this claim.
“We’re really bad at looking back in time,” he told the magazine. “You overly idealize the past. It happens today when we talk about technology. We say: ‘Oh, technology, making us isolated. We’re disengaged.’ Compared to what? You know, this kind of idealized notion of what community and social interactions were like.”
Using the same locations as Whyte and his acolytes did several decades ago, Hampton’s team came up with more than 38 hours of comparable film. They spent 2,000 hours comparing people in the films and their behaviours and came to some rather counter-intuitive conclusions.
At most, only 10% of modern adults were seen to be using their phones, while actual face-to-face communications and meetings were up significantly. Researchers who used Whyte’s methods in 1979 outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York found that about a third of those who visited the steps were alone; in 2010, Hampton discovered that figure in the same spot was down to about a quarter.
“People on the phone were not ignoring lunch partners or interrupting strolls with their lovers; rather, phone use seemed to be a way to pass the time while waiting to meet up with someone, or unwinding during a solo lunch break,” Hampton said.
The study does only take public places into account. Believers in the technology-is-alienating-us theory are quick to point out the real separation is happening in more intimate settings, such as at home, where families aren’t talking much at the dinner table because they’re all on their phones.
At this point, that’s an anecdotal theory. My bet is that particular suspicion wouldn’t stand up to scientific scrutiny either.
As Hampton says, there is a strong tendency to regard the past – inevitably a less technological time – with rose-coloured glasses when it comes to this sort of thing. People are willing to believe that we used to communicate better when, ironically, we didn’t have nearly as many communication tools at our disposal, but I don’t think that’s true. Judging from my own experience, my family never communicated much; the existence of technology was irrelevant.
Call it post-modern cynicism, technological dissonance or even hipsterism – what I suspect it really is is a defence mechanism for dealing with the sudden onslaught of technology that we’ve all had to face over the past decade. Some day, when we’re all communicating telepathically, we’ll probably look back on this current time as the halcyon days of inter-personal discourse.
History does, after all, have a way of repeating itself.