Out of Sync
Has technology brought us closer together or further apart?
By Michael J. Pallerino
The scene didn't seem any different than what Mark Barden had witnessed in the past. A trio of friends was huddled around an outdoor table at a Mexican cantina in San Francisco. Two were intently focused on their laptops, while the third was so consumed by his headphones that the waitress needed to yell just to take his order.
Barden, a partner with marketing consultancy Eat Big Fish, was more than a bit fascinated by the spectacle and, as he freely admits, eavesdropping more than he should have been on the conversation. As it turns out, the group was on Facebook communicating in RealTime with a friend who recently had moved to Georgia. Missing their old pal, they decided to have a virtual lunch (even if all parties weren't intently focused on the task at hand).
To the non-eavesdropper, the scene (three people bonded by technology but doing their own thing) may solidify the notion that technologically driven communication is eliminating the raw, human part of being with one another. We're drones – robots that are becoming increasingly devoid of the ability to have intimate conversation. That's what some people want you to believe: that technology of any kind eventually will upset the balance of civilization, as we know it. The soothsayers make these kinds of prophecies all the time.
But Barden isn't buying it – any of it. In a world where technology practically dictates everything we do these days, he believes we are better left to our own devices, so to speak. "There was communicating and connection happening within that group, even if it wasn't in a way most of us would do it. It doesn't make any sense to me – this notion that we should be alarmed that online is the place where you can be yourself. The networks that we build, especially those online, are assets. Things like social media are enablers."
The other side of the debate
Sherry Turkle, sociologist and MIT professor, was so bent on the idea that our online lives are becoming comfortable substitutes for direct human interaction, that she wrote her compelling book, "Alone Together." The book is a fascinating study into how insecure we are about our relationships and how anxious intimacy makes us. Turkle believes that many of us seek technology as a vehicle to developing relationships while protecting ourselves from them at the same time. After interviewing hundreds of people, mostly younger ones, her summation was the following: "We fear the risks and disappointments from relationships with our fellow humans. We expect more from technology and less from each other."
More than anything else, Turkle seems optimistic that people will want to reclaim their privacy and turn back to their relationships with real people, even though she concedes that the lure of technology is such that it's becoming a tougher challenge.
Barden, a fan of the book, sees both sides of the debate. "All technology has been greeted with skepticism and horror. But here, I don't believe we are alone. In fact, I think we are more connected than ever before."
As proof, he cites the fact that he stays connected with scores of friends via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. "What's amazing is that I can keep track of everything they are doing, wherever and whatever they are doing it, and then pick up right where we left off when I see them again. It's like I was there all along. That's what connectivity has done for us. I feel enabled and empowered by social media. And while I grew up in a different generation, one where you were taught to look somebody in the eyes when you spoke, this generation doesn't see it that way. That just means they have to approach communicating and connecting differently. It's a matter of learning how to control it."
The choices we make
The other morning, author and speaker Robin Jay awoke to the sound of her smartphone vibrating on the nightstand. The message, from an old friend, read: "Check out my new Facebook page and call me." Reading her friend's Facebook post before talking with her saved time and instantly brought her up to speed on what was happening. The text helped set things into motion faster.
"I don't believe we are any more alone now than we were before all this technology, but I definitely believe that how we choose to integrate technology into our relationships can either isolate us from others or integrate us more into their social circles," Jay says. "The worst example of technology separating us from others is when we can't leave our smart technology alone long enough to connect face-to-face. It's those times when you're with a friend, colleague or family member at dinner and she keeps checking her texts. I think the lack of ability (or willingness) to disconnect is the biggest challenge to interpersonal relationships."
Being alone together
The idea of being alone when we want to be alone still appeals to us and, at the same time eludes us. Ever since smart marketers realized centuries ago that to generate a sale you must build awareness, we'vet all become targets of sales messages – however those messages are communicated.
Roger L. Beahm, professor of the Practice in Marketing and executive director of the Center for Retail Innovation at Wake Forest University, is amazed by how far technology has taken us down the road of communications, especially marketing. "We used to think about developing advertising that would 'break through the clutter.' But today's consumer has found new ways of avoiding the message by avoiding the medium. Smart marketers now are learning to use technology to 'break through the silence.'"
Technology is alluring because it's like what magic is to a child – fascinating and strange all at once. Beahm says we're fascinated by the multisensory nature of new technology – appealing through sight, sound and touch – so when marketers use these three senses to engage their consumers' "hearts" (emotional connection) and "heads" (rationale), the messaging becomes much more effective.
So, should we be afraid that more intimate forms of communications will just drift away? Beahm says no. "Face-to-face contact still requires us to 'look as good as we sound.' It requires us to appear credible, not just sound credible. Looking someone in the eyes and telling them your message, has always been more challenging to marketers than compelling someone to read off a page or watch for 30 seconds, and hope they are persuaded. People are more comfortable online because they can say whatever they want and don't necessarily have to defend it on the spot. In-person means answering questions and giving immediate feedback. Sometimes that can be difficult for a marketer – just as people who call on buyers in person. Once the words are out there, you usually can't take them back. So, online gives a person a chance to review and edit their message before delivering it. Face-to-face means you only get one take."