Anthropological behavior can be misread -- remember the first time you mistook someone chatting on a Bluetooth headphone for a gesticulating lunatic? It's also hard to relate to the person intently messaging "where u at?" while driving headlong into a car wreck.
This kind of insular yet public behavior is intensely personal, so I was interested to look through a study from Hugh Bowen, who runs Bowen Research, a consultancy that studies consumer attitudes and behavior toward high-tech devices. Bowen, who has some high-profile clients, studied 560 people to quantify some visible trends among professed users of consumer technology that go straight to our social behavior as a species.
The study indicates that Americans are slowly losing the ability to communicate and connect with each other on an in-person basis -- and technology seems to be the main culprit. Among the findings: 42 percent of people think others are talking faster than they used to; 49 percent think people interrupt each other more often than in recent years; 68 percent think we are more rude; and 60 percent think we are less kind.
I can relate, for as intently as I consume information I equally lose touch with peers in the next cubicle or down the hall. As Bowen found more generally, most of this undoing has come at the expense of simple personal interaction: the weekly card game, the chat over the fence, the family dinner. "People are saying they feel the overall level of connection between people is diminishing," he told me.
This observation is not new and for many, the family dinner was undone by television well before the Internet showed up. The subject is worthy of whole books, and historical accounts of the 20th Century have been and are still being written. Bowen refers often to David Putnam's Bowling Alone; I also like Matthew Crawford's Shop Class as Soul Craft.
But the trend appears to be accelerating. Another eerie finding of the study was that more than 90 percent of the research audience sensed that time is actually speeding up. Without a scientific leg to stand on, I'd suggest that perception might come from all the consumption and all the brain throughput, egged on by the streams of email, instant messaging and Facebook-type networking, not to mention the complete insularity of game playing. "Human beings are set up in such a way that if you see something and hear something, it's real," Bowen says. "Given that, it's no surprise media is so seductive."
It's certainly gotten our attention, more or less undivided. Bowen hesitates at the word "addiction," but agrees the behavior displays the same traits of self-control run amok. "Maybe we will need technologists anonymous," he says. "Is it as bad as drugs and alcohol? Probably no, but it is taking over our culture."
And if none of this is surprises you, it's because so many of us are accepting it blithely as the normal course of things. To be honest, 'How do you keep the kids down on the farm once they've seen the city lights?' was a complaint of older generations.
Perhaps it is the "same old" we've always adjusted to, neither better nor worse. But information now comes much more quickly, voluminously and with transitory value that diminishes quickly. The human instinct of inventing or originating a thought to write about now fits into a channel of consumption and distribution we've never had before and have little time to reflect on. Our brain can consume and react to much more fleeting data than it was ever tested on before.
Maybe all we have time for is to latch onto a favorable idea, recycle it and move on -- talking faster and interrupting all the while. Are many of us becoming our own talking heads? The current political discourse as manipulated from both ends comes to mind as an example -- but I'm not going there.
To ask where all this is heading is too much for a blog entry. It's not just social reflection, it's quickly as existential as pondering NASA's deep field examination of the universe. Is this consumption obsession something new and different or is it the same old progression of humans and technology? You decide. I'm going back to my book and leave it to you to answer my trial balloon with your own behavioral anthropology.
(You can have a look at Hugh Bowen's Fragmentation of the Modern Mind study here. -ed)