Separation Anxiety — Now that there’s no escaping the digital world
“Across all different majors a very high proportion, over 90 percent, are saying yes. They care about it. They are much more articulate and concerned about what adults are concerned about, but nobody has been having a conversation with young people about these issues.”
Now that there’s no escaping the digital world, research is getting more serious about what happens to personalities that are incessantly on.
Yet, along with the power has come the feeling that digital devices have invaded our every waking moment. We’ve had to pass laws to get people off their cell phones while driving. Backlit iPads slither into our beds for midnight Words With Friends trysts. Sitcoms poke fun at breakfast tables where siblings text each other to ask that the butter be passed. (According to a Nielsen study, the average 13- to 17-year-old now deals with 3,339 texts a month.) We even buy new technology to cure new problems created by new technology: There’s an iPhone app that uses the device’s built-in camera to show the ground in front of a user as a backdrop on the keypad. “Have you ever tried calling someone while walking with your phone only to run into something because you can’t see where you’re going?” goes the sales pitch.
Stanford computer scientists and engineers have played a central role in the development of the gadgets and software enabling all this, from semiconductors to networking equipment to GPS to Google. And now a growing number of researchers here and elsewhere are exploring the social and psychological consequences of virtual experience and digital incursion. Researchers observe the blurring boundaries between real and virtual life, challenge the vaunted claims of multitasking, and ponder whether people need to establish technology-free zones. (Last year, enthusiasm for the “Sabbath Manifesto” project spread rapidly via the Internet—from which its creators specifically advocate unplugging on a regular basis.)
He says the e-personality is more impulse-driven and more narcissistic; it gives itself permission to explore or seek out more morbid subjects; it regresses to earlier developmental stages that are more about action without heed to consequences; and it has a more grandiose view of itself. “It used to be that some people would say, ‘Well, I can be myself online.’ But what’s worrisome is that offline life is starting to be more like online life. We’re becoming more impatient, more narcissistic, more regressed even when there is no browser in sight.”
‘We’re becoming more impatient, more narcissistic, more regressed
even when there is no browser in sight.’
Delusions of Productivity
Nass became intrigued with multitasking and how young people seemed to switch so effortlessly among online chats, cell phone calls and their homework, all the while listening to music. “I wanted to figure out why kids are so good at multitasking,” he explains. “I was trying to figure out what magic they had.”
He is increasingly asked by high-tech companies to do research that questions the policies and practices that have fostered multitasking among their workers. “The norm has become ‘you must answer everybody’s text or email right away because if people get immediate answers they can move ahead.’ Well, that’s fine if you’re looking for answers from a Google search. If you keep asking Google questions, it doesn’t bug Google.” But for employees, “the cost of being constantly questioned is a real cost because there is a time limit to every day. In Silicon Valley you hire people who can think deeply and critically, but then you don’t give them time to do that.”
One fascinating aspect of research on what people do in virtual worlds is that the sensors and cameras designed to make it all work capture incredible amounts of data. “Every single action is tracked 60 times per second,” Bailenson explains. Thus are created enormous databases that scientists can probe for insights. In one study, for example, subjects’ faces were monitored by a video camera as they performed particular tasks. Software analyzed the facial movements and later correlated that data to the subjects’ performance on the tasks. The upshot was a program that could predict when people were about to make a mistake. It’s not hard to imagine such a program being used to analyze the face of a fighter pilot, or a factory worker, to notice signs of fatigue, confusion or distraction—and intervene before a problem occurs.
Psychologist Stephanie Brown, director of The Addictions Institute in Menlo Park, notes that “the internal experience today is one of hyperanxiety” and that “there has been a devaluing of quiet thoughtfulness.” She treats more and more families struggling with both children and parents who cannot tear themselves away from their devices. “Addictions happen when people are trying to control their emotional state. You find something that makes you feel better and then you want more of it, but then there is emptiness in the payoff. We’re seeing that, overnight, the happy little soccer player becomes the addicted gamer on World of Warcraft.”
Reeves counters, “The term addiction [when used with gaming] can cause trouble. Does it mean playing too long? What is too long?” While he knows that some people play too much, he believes that for many there are positive effects of extended play. He cites a study that showed that teens who play multiplayer games have more friends, lower Body Mass Index, and are more socially integrated.
No Substitute for Real
‘The faster we go, the more we overload what we can do, must do and should do. We lose the life-giving dimension of being in the moment.’
Levy notes that today’s world assumes “the way to success is accelerated interaction and access; however, questioning that assumption involves the way we look at what gives life meaning and value. That’s not something you really go do a study about. It’s why you do philosophy. I see myself as a philosopher of technology trying to frame what the problem is.” (Nass agrees: “Studying chronic phenomena is very difficult. It’s hard to study the stuff happening to everybody all the time.”)