Mobile Technology Means Never Fully Being Where You Are

The APA Monitor has an interview with Dr. Sherry Turkle who has documented how iphones, blackberries and other mobile devices have reduced the amount of attention users pay to people who are physically present. I love the technology as much as the next person, but there is something sad in reading that fathers are emailing during Sunday football game breaks during which they used to talk to their sons and some moms are texting while breastfeeding instead of focusing on their infant (which many mothers tell me was one of the most intimate experiences of their lives).

In my first week working at the Executive Office of the President, I was shocked when I saw someone was clearly sending email during a face to face meeting of only 4 people, but I soon adjusted to the norm. In the West Wing there is a photo of an oval office meeting of President Obama and some of his key advisors, and David Axelrod is Blackberrying away.

The technology is here to stay but I wonder if we can’t develop better social norms around it. Few of us are getting emails along the lines of “Doctor the patient has lost 2 pints of blood — get to the hospital now!”. Are we so narcissistic that we can’t admit that most of our email is spam or real but trivial, and certainly not something that can’t wait long enough for us to interact with people we care about who are sitting right next to us?

I have a friend who, every time we get together for lunch, puts his iphone next to his fork and reads it every time it buzzes. This behavior bothers me enough that I tend to arrange shared meals in places that do not allow cell phone use. Why I haven’t said “Would you shut that off?” I am not sure, but I think it’s because I think I shouldn’t have to anymore that I have to tell my dining companions not to pick their nose in front of me or chew with their mouth open. My social norm preference would place the burden of asking on the person who wants to disconnect from face to face interaction through technology rather than making that the default expectation. But I am not sure if my wishes are widely shared enough for that to ever become the social norm of how we use these new technologies.

[Cross-posted at Same Facts]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.