12 April 2008

Family ties

Our recent achievements in technology and the growth in social media have influenced our behaviour, redfining the way we gather information, communicate and interact with each other, and do business. Although this phenomenon has affected a portion of our population, it has attracted criticism from many quarters.

I’m not surprised. After all, since the Industrial Revolution, people have cried foul of the negative effects of our technological achievements. One topic of concern has been the weakening of ties between family and friends, claiming that ‘the new technology culture’ has actually isolated people when it should have connected them.

Family Ties, an article in the latest issue of The Economist discusses this very issue and presents several points of view. Here are some excerpts:

In the 1990s, as the internet came into widespread use, sociologists, never an upbeat bunch to begin with, became decidedly pessimistic. Some observed a “loss of social capital” as people spent their time transfixed by screens rather than other people. Others saw the (real-world, as opposed to online) social networks of Americans shrinking, with ever more people feeling that they were intimate with nobody at all. Robert Kraut at Carnegie Mellon University argued that the internet causes social isolation and depression. Norman Nie at Stanford University believed that “internet use at home has a strong negative impact on time spent with friends and family as well as time spent on social activities.”

But most of these observations, made in a rich country at the height of the PC era, focused on the wired and stationary kind of communications technology rather than the wireless and mobile sort. Now, as mobile communications are becoming the norm, a new generation of sociologists is scrambling to update all these theories. So far, most of them agree that nomadic technology, far from isolating people, brings them closer to their families, friends and lovers — their strong ties. But they still disagree on what that means for weak ties with strangers, and thus society at large.

Nomadic technology deepens family ties because, as another 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 — i.e., 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.

The article, Family Ties, also presents an interesting example of the use of mobile technology in Japan and how the Japanese have embraced it behaviorally and culturally:

Mobile technology also tethers couples, especially young ones, but in a different way. Mimi Ito, an anthropologist who studies the effects of mobile technology on youth culture in Japan and America, has found that Japanese lovers send constant text messages to avoid parental rules and to stay connected emotionally when they are physically separated. Every nomadic culture has its idiosyncrasies, and the Japanese speciality is a rich vocabulary of “emoticons”: “I really want to see you (>_<)”; “I feel like I am going to be sick (;_;)”.

This steady stream of emoticons and photos in between physical “flesh meets” amounts to “tele-nesting”, says Ms Ito. It also spices up and prolongs the flesh meets. Young people in Tokyo, she has observed, will start their date by exchanging text messages all afternoon as they do homework or take the train to the rendezvous. At night, on their journey home after the actual date, they use messages again as “fading embers of conversation”, sometimes continuing for days and turning little memories into the couple’s “lore”.

Often entire cliques do this sort of thing, creating, in effect, their own tribal medium and narrative. Ms Ito has noticed a new genre of photography on the rise as young people use their phones to snap photos of everyday situations — the view from the escalator on the way to school, say — which mean a lot to their friends and nothing to anybody else. They especially love photos that capture “dumb things that their friends do”, such as getting drunk and falling into puddles, which collectively amount to “everyday, casual documentaries” for a circle of friends.

[Citation: Family Ties, The Economist print edition, 10 April 2008.]

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