Archive for Friday, July 29, 2005

Party of one

Technology puts new fold in social fabric

July 29, 2005


If you woke tomorrow and didn't feel like dealing with another human being all day, no problem.

You could shop for clothes, cars and airline tickets, pay your bills, stock up on groceries, refuel your car, get medical advice - all without ever talking to another living soul.

Technologies such as pay-at-the-pump gas stations, automated K-Tag turnpike tolls, self-checkout grocery lanes, online banking and interactive Web sites make it possible to live with minimal human interaction. But at what cost?

"There are social consequences," says Eunice Ruttinger, director of adult services at Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center in Lawrence. "We know that generally for people to have positive interactions with others on a daily basis and have positive social exchanges helps them feel better and improves their mental health."

So is everyone with an ATM card, a K-Tag, an eBay password and a penchant for ordering goods online in danger of becoming a hermit or sinking into a deep depression?

Automated Teller Machines, Interactive Web sites, pay-at-the-pump gas stations and K-Tags for the Kansas Turnpike are some examples of technology that make life easier but that also help isolate individuals by eliminating human contact.

Automated Teller Machines, Interactive Web sites, pay-at-the-pump gas stations and K-Tags for the Kansas Turnpike are some examples of technology that make life easier but that also help isolate individuals by eliminating human contact.

Of course not, said Pam Botts, associate director of Counseling and Psychological Services at Kansas University. But technology can be a crutch for people already inclined to isolate themselves.

"I think it's not a simple issue in that what we're talking about is changes in the culture," Botts says. "Those of us who are used to the nontechnology culture, what we find fulfilling and satisfying and energizing and what we find helps us interact with others is different in some ways than the way some of the younger people who are more inclined to use technology function.

"For any of us, if we are too isolated, if we don't interact with people a fair amount, we can become very self-absorbed and lost in our own world. : The people who would want to (use technology to withdraw) are probably the same people who are very reclusive in the culture as we've known it."

Maximizing connections

Danette Michaels pays some of her bills online, charges her gasoline at the pump and uses K-Tag to hasten her daily commute to Kansas City, Kan., where she teaches at an alternative high school. For the 50-year-old Lawrence resident, it's all a matter of convenience.

"Any kind of time-saving technology that is easy to use, then I'm all for it," she said. "It doesn't have anything to do with my interactions with people that I might lose at the gas station or the turnpike terminal. I don't consider those to be quality interactions anyway."

That sentiment is fine for people with a strong network of friends, family and colleagues. But what seems like meaningless conversation to some might be crucial contact for others.

"It becomes increasingly or proportionately more valuable depending upon your additional human connections during a day," said Luke Thompson, a 20-year-old KU student. "If that's the full extent of your human connection, then it becomes very valuable."

Ruttinger agreed.

"There are some folks who maybe their only connection for the day is going to the grocery store. If you live by yourself, to be able to say hi to that clerk might be the only contact you have for the day," she says.

"Our consciousness around technology is important - to understand that we still need to call people on the telephone even though we do have e-mail, that we do still need to see people in person and that nothing replaces that."

Generation isolation?

Thompson, who uses ATMs and self-checkout lanes and orders his textbooks from, said these time-saving technologies don't have nearly as much to do with alienation as leisure technologies, such as video games, television and those ubiquitous music-storage gadgets produced by Apple and others.

"To my mind, the most potent new force as far as isolation is concerned is the iPod," Thompson says. "If you walk around campus these days, you'll see a huge percentage of students have an iPod or similar device on all the time. There's no communication. It's sort of dead-set ahead and walk past one another. Between those and cell phones, it's pervasive."

Officials at Sydney, Australia's private International Grammar School earlier this year had similar concerns. They asked pupils to leave their iPods at home or lock them in a drawer during the school day because they enable students to "avoid communication with others" and may lead to "social isolation or escape from our community."

KU sociology professor Bob Antonio spent a recent Thanksgiving with a family friend whose teenage son spent almost the entire holiday playing a wrestling game on the computer.

"It just seems that there's so much more time spent on mediated time - time that you're operating some kind of media," he says. "The issue is, does that mean we're disconnected, or does it mean that we add another layer?"

Indeed, people make new friends and even meet future spouses online. But a 1998 study published in American Psychology found that although the Internet was used extensively for communication, greater use of the Internet was associated with declines in participants' communication with family members in the household, declines in the size of their social circle and increases in their depression and loneliness.

A December report by Stanford University researchers seems to back up those claims, finding that frequent Internet users - 31 percent of the U.S. population, according to the study - spend 70 fewer minutes daily interacting with family and 25 fewer minutes sleeping.

'Social capital' at risk

Although ATMs, self-pay devices and Internet technologies are relatively recent developments, the discussion of American individualism and self-interest is nothing new, Antonio says. The topic has been written about by everyone from 19th-century political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville to political scientist Benjamin Barber, author of 1996's "Jihad vs. McWorld."

Robert Putnam, the Harvard University public policy professor who visited Lawrence in 2000 for the Bert Nash Community Summit, confronted the issue in his best-selling book, "Bowling Alone" (2000). Putnam used data to show that Americans have become increasingly detached from family, friends, neighbors and democratic structures by signing fewer petitions, belonging to fewer civic organizations, knowing neighbors less and even socializing less often with their own families.

What's lost in the decline is "social capital," he says, the glue that holds communities together and makes them healthy, happy places to live.

Though the culprits he cited include changes in work, family structure, age and suburban life, he seemed to point the biggest finger at television and other electronic mass media. He encouraged the electronic entertainment and telecommunication industries to help reverse the disconnection trend of the past three decades.

"Let us find ways to ensure that by 2010 Americans will spend less leisure time sitting passively alone in front of glowing screens and more time in active connection with our fellow citizens," he wrote. "Let us foster new forms of electronic entertainment and communication that reinforce community engagement rather than forestalling it."

Ultimately, however, individuals make their own decisions about how to spend their time.

"I think the main thing is just to encourage people to know that volunteering and being involved with others and in your community is good for your health," Ruttinger of Bert Nash said. "Use technology to help you connect with others, not to cut yourself off from others."


Richard Heckler 12 years, 7 months ago

This is how jobs are lost. We should not be fooled by the rhetoric behind all of this...someone is losing a job somewhere. Overall that is not good for the economy. That is why I avoid the self check out at Dillon's.

christie 12 years, 7 months ago

Merrill: Someone at Dillons lost their job because Management is more interested in dollars than sense. I don't shop at Dillons because they treat their employees bad, and encourage you to use the self-serve check-out lines. Besides that, their prices are way too high.

If someone loses a job because of a technological advance then most likely 2 jobs are created. The problem with that is these jobs are now outsourced to India.

I do concur with the general report however, and believe one-on-one contact in both social and business settings suffers. However, there are lots of opportunities to be in touch. There are lots of community opportunities to involve ones self with. Church Functions. School Functions, Volunteer opportunities at schools, hospitals, etc.

Jillster 12 years, 7 months ago

Isolation is a big problem in my daily life...I run an internet business from my home, so I don't have co-workers, or have much direct contact with my customers (just e-mails and the occasional phone call). I often listen to the TV while I'm packaging up orders just to hear a human voice!

I have to make sure I spend time with my husband and my friends so I don't start to go stir crazy.

topekahawk 12 years, 7 months ago

Merrill, You are brilliant! Remind me to let my buggy whip maker know of your interest in helping him to keep his job.

lunacydetector 12 years, 7 months ago

when companies outsource it means the economy is doing well.

someone in India might take your customer service call, but it helps the middle class by bringing lower prices and faster service.

96% of our apparel is imported. we have more choices for less money. The Labor Department's price index for clothing has been going down and down over the past decade.

but still, what about all those American workers who lose their jobs to people overseas?

a Dartmouth study found that outsourcers actually create jobs in America at a faster rate than companies that don't outsource. The same study found that companies that outsourced abroad ended up hiring twice as many workers at home.

allowing outsourcing creates opportunity. it's easy to see the pain of the workers who are laid off; it's harder to see the benefits of free trade, because those benefits aren't news.

it's true that in the last four years, America has lost more than 1 million jobs, but those were years when we had a recession. since 1992, America has lost 361 million jobs, but during that same time we also gained 380 million jobs. millions more than we lost.

in reality outsourcing is not a crisis. the crisis will only come if we try to stop it.

Richard Heckler 12 years, 7 months ago

It might be interesting to know how much a product drops in price to the consumer due to outsourcing???

Or how much did a CEO's salary,stock options and golden parachute increase due to outsourcing???

Richard Heckler 12 years, 7 months ago

The most obvious question is when can customers expect Krogers/Dillons to cut prices as a result of this money saving venture? How much are customers saving as a result of the automated device?

Richard Heckler 12 years, 7 months ago

The auto workers are a prime example of the effects of automation and outsourcing. More of them lost their good paying jobs with benefits. All of those who are paying out $5000- $8000 in medical premiums alone are making up the difference every day for those who can no longer afford such. The trickle down impact.

Looking at the price of american NAMED motorized vehicles it is fair to say prices did not take a dive. Some SUV's were taking consumers for a ride at a 38% profit margin...$25k - $65k for an american made(?) fancy truck tells me consumers allowed themselves to get ripped off. Consumers need to wise up and find out what vehicles actual costs were before paying up.

ATM money is a huge money maker for financial institutions. It is more often than not very expensive money.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.