Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Cell Phone and the Rise of Narcissism

Christianity and the Social Strengthening of “Weak Ties”

“Nomadic technology deepens family ties because, as … sociologist, Christian Licoppe, puts it, it enables “connected presence”, which is new in history. In the era of stationary communications technology, people used landline phones that belonged to a place rather than a person. In that communication culture people talked infrequently and viewed a conversation as an occasion. Typically, they would plan the call for an appropriate time, such as a Sunday. Both sides would introduce themselves with a greeting—ie, a ritual—and then take time to catch up.
With mobile phones, on the other hand, people call, text or e-mail one another constantly throughout the day. Since they are always, in effect, contacting a person rather than a place, and since the receiver can see the caller's name, and probably his picture, they often dispense with greetings altogether. The exchanges now tend to be frequent and short. People expect less content but instead a feeling of permanent connection, as though they were in fact together during the entire time between their physical meetings.

Mr Ling, using data from Norway, has found that about half of all mobile-phone calls and text messages go to the same three or four people, typically within ten kilometres of the caller. A lot of this is what he calls “micro-co-ordination”, as family members are out about town and check in with each other to plan their next stop or errand. Dad might call from the supermarket's dairy aisle to find out which brand of yogurt to buy; mum might text that she is running late and that dad needs to pick up the kids.

But such communications go far beyond the merely utilitarian. Manuel Castells, the sociologist at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication, says that mobile technology affects children the most. On one hand, adolescents today become socially autonomous earlier than their parents did, “building their own communities from the bottom up” through constant text-messaging and photo-sharing among their clique, even if this circumvents the wishes of their parents. On the other hand, they also have their parents on speed-dial, and are only one button away from help if they get into trouble. Mr Castells calls this a “safe autonomy pattern”.

This has some sociologists concerned. James Katz at Rutgers calls the mobile phone a new sort of umbilical cord between children and their parents and wonders whether this might in some cases “retard maturation”. Sherry Turkle, the psychologist at MIT, says that wireless gadgets are, ironically, a “tethering technology” and create new dependencies that delay the important “Huck Finn moment” in young lives when adolescents first realise that they are alone on the urban equivalent of the Mississippi. Getting drunk and lost after a party is different when one push of a button summons the parental chauffeur. In 2005 a psychology professor at Middlebury College in Vermont found that undergraduates were communicating with their parents, on average, more than ten times a week.

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Out with the out crowd

The potential problem with connected presence is that it usually excludes other people who may be physically present. In situations that might once have been an opportunity to talk to a stranger—waiting for a bus or boarding an aeroplane, say—people now fill the time with a few messages to parents, lovers or friends. This strengthens the strong ties, but weakens, or even cuts, the weak ties in society. In some cases, says Mr Ling, it leads to “bounded solidarity”, when cliques become so turned in on themselves that they all but stop interacting with the wider society around them.

The first casualty is usually etiquette. Noise pollution is only one kind of violation. In an American survey conducted in 2005, 62% of the people polled—and 74% of those over 60—felt that “using a cell phone in public is a major irritation for other people,” but only 32% of those between 18 and 27 shared that opinion. That divergence makes for a combustible social cocktail whenever the generations mix. It is routine nowadays for people to answer calls in cinemas, restaurants and public toilets, even at weddings and funerals. The volume of these transgressions varies with the culture—Americans and Italians, say, are louder than Swedes or Japanese. And some societies are beginning to adjust. Some countries now have “quiet cars” on trains where patrons cannot talk on their mobiles but must text instead.

Trickier etiquette problems arise when the issue is not so much noise as context. One example that will enter the history books occurred last September when Rudy Giuliani, a former mayor of New York, was still waging a vigorous campaign for the presidency. As he was up on his podium and in mid-sentence addressing the National Rifle Association (NRA), a crucial constituency for a Republican candidate, his mobile rang and, to gasps in the huge audience, he decided to answer it. What followed, captured on microphone, is worth repeating in its banality: “Hello, dear. I'm talking, I'm talking to the members of the NRA right now. Would you like to say hello? I love you, and I'll give you a call as soon as I'm finished. OK? OK, have a safe trip. Bye-bye. Talk to you later, dear. I love you.” When he hung up, the audience had turned to stone.
Usually the situation is subtler and the incongruence has more to do with attention. This can be true even during silent mobile communications. It is now routine for university students to text, e-mail and instant-message during lectures. Mr Ling, whose job includes loitering in public places for observation, watched a woman at an Oslo underground station who texted as she walked. She was wholly focused on her text message but had to look up occasionally to weave through the crowds on the platform. Other people were doing the same. It was an “atomised and individualised” scene, says Mr Ling: a new form of the proverbial lonely crowd.

But at least this particular Norwegian woman was signalling through her body language to all around her that she wanted to be left alone. The spread of “hands-free” Bluetooth devices, with hidden earplugs seemingly attached to nothing, is removing even those clues. Steve Love, a psychologist, was travelling on a train from Edinburgh to Glasgow once when a girl standing next to him started talking to him. She asked him how he was and how his day had been, and Mr Love, though a bit shy, politely told her how much he was looking forward to watching Scotland play football that evening. As he spoke, the girl looked at him in horror, then turned away. Only then did Mr Love hear her say “OK, I'll call you later.” Not a word or gesture was exchanged for the remainder of the (suddenly uncomfortable) journey.

Probably the single most common etiquette conflict occurs, as Mr Ling puts it, when mediated communication interrupts co-present communication, as when two or more people are sitting at a table in conversation or negotiation and one of them gets, and answers, a call. The other co-present people must now keep themselves busy while seeming nonchalant. What is more, they must pretend not to be eavesdropping even though they are only a few feet away from the mediated conversation, ideally by assuming a pose of concentration on some other object, such as their fingernails or their own phone. As soon as the intervening call ends, everybody must try to re-enter the co-present context as gracefully as possible.

So there is evidence that nomadism is good for in-groups, but at the expense of strangers. If that is true, Mr Granovetter would consider it bad for society. Fortunately, however, the last chapter has not yet been written. Since the outburst of pessimism about the internet among sociologists in the 1990s, the web has recently become an intensely social medium, thanks in large part to proliferating online social networks such as Facebook and MySpace. Young people have been using these websites on their PCs to keep in touch with much larger groups of people than has ever been feasible before. It is not uncommon for adolescents to add several “friends” a day to their “social graph” on Facebook or to the “buddy list” of their instant-messaging service.

As mobile devices now become, in effect, computers for accessing the wider web, these online services are also moving from stationary to mobile use. Whether that could reinvigorate the weak ties in society along with the strong ties remains to be seen. But etiquette, both online and offline, remains a work in progress.”

[The Economist, May 14, 2008]

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