Sunday, January 2, 2011

Just because you can, doesn't mean you should.

It seems every few years we have another personal communication technology available to us, something to make our lives more efficient. Theoretically, we should be more productive and have more free time as a result of these inventions. And we should be happier, too. But those payoffs just aren't materializing. Instead, we simply take on more work. We allow technology itself to set the bar, often for reasons that have nothing to do with efficiency.

A prime example can be seen with the phenomenon of texting, the preferred method of communication by today's teens. Only a few years ago, we had a generation of teens that spent hours a day on the telephone. For many, texting has replaced the telephone—even in situations where the telephone would be many times more efficient. Granted, there are some situations where texting is an ideal communication medium. But having lengthy conversations via text is painfully inefficient. So why do teens do it? I asked a friend of mine, Vermont psychologist, Dr. Steven B. Mann.

According to Dr. Mann, our culture is experiencing a new wave of anxiety, caused by the repeated use of these indirect communication technologies. Texting—like email—allows us to converse without the fear of emotional repercussions, such as saying the wrong thing or being perceived as insincere. The more someone avoids the telephone and replaces it with texting, the more anxiety is created. We now have a generation of young people who don't know how to talk to one another, particularly to someone of the opposite sex. Furthermore, texting lowers one's inhibitions, allowing relationships to progress at an accelerated pace. It's a formula for trouble ahead.

Another example of this new age of anxiety can be found in people's use of smart phones. Go to any bar in America or to a vacation resort, and you will see people compulsively checking their smart phones for email. Are they really that busy? According to Dr. Mann, people have become hyper-sensitive to their social environments, especially when they are alone. The fear of encountering a situation that requires emotional engagement keeps them glued to their smart phones. Email provides a ready escape. The more compulsively people check it, the more anxiety they create.

Technology itself is not at fault—the problem is our use of technology. We must make choices about which technologies and how much of them actually make life better. The answers may vary for each of us, but just because something is there, does not mean we should or must use it.