The Kids are Alright… right?

Brad posted earlier this week regarding the potential drawbacks of our
increased reliance on communications media. Jessica also recently
posted a piece aptly, and directly (so Vitak) titled, Are we becoming
too dependent on the Internet
?

Now, I love my colleagues and they both made some good observations. I also think we’ve all had similar thoughts at some point. However, I tend to disagree.

As Brad acknowledged, the argument for technological over reliance
approaches the sort of "kids these days" nostalgia which is always a
tad suspect, simply because every generation has gripes about the current state of things.

I find this line of reasoning particularly questionable when
paired with a pronouncement of some loss of core values that is
centered around the use of technology.

These "good old days"
narratives are highly emblematic of the inescapable generation gap that
seems to grow worse with the increasing rate of technical progress. I
can’t help but think the rationale is heavily colored by the anxieties
that tend to surround massive changes spurred by technological
advancement.

My dad, a former electrical contractor, would agree with
Brad’s dad, that lack of self-reliance can be problematic if not
extremely dangerous on the job site. I concede that vast deployment of
Nextel devices among workers may facilitate insecure waffling. And a similar analog probably exists in other industries.

But I don’t think the idea that technology erodes human capability or work
ethic holds up in a broader sense. Nor is this a new argument in the least.

Fifteenth century
nay sayers claimed the printing press was causing a deplorable loss of
human expertise and diminishing faculties of intelligence like
memory… I think as a society we’ve developed far enough past that particular point
of technological upheaval to smile at such a notion.

We are definitely observing increasingly constant googling,
texting, and email swapping, etc, which at times seems just plain
excessive. However, I don’t think this behavior is necessarily a
harbinger of our generation’s intellectual or other shortcomings.

I
imagine it is more likely a demonstration of an emergent– no, scratch that, an already-
emerged cultural shift.

There is a generalized tendency towards seeking information
when it is needed rather than acquiring general expertise that I think is a
symptom of the always on, information- centered New EconomyTM in which we
find ourselves.

Our reliance on media and communications technologies is probably to be expected given the changing
relative value of specific kinds of knowledge and skills. Such
shifts are a natural consequence of economic development.

Or… our
kids might end up even bigger bumbling idiots than we are. But I really don’t think so. I think that information overload is probably a more realistic and potentially huge problem that is inherent in the use
of communications media.

Now I know this is a somewhat hackneyed concept.
We’ve long been sufferring under the frenzied pace of electronic
communication brought on by plunging transaction costs. But as banal as
it may seem, you know that you, the Communications student, struggles with the challenge of managing all
of this communication/information.

We at gnovis are only beginning to strike a
balance between keeping everyone abreast of our progress, and simply
slamming each other’s inboxes with inane questions.

It seems that everyone is especially inundated with email. Ahh, email. I hate to
use cliches but it is truly a blessing and a curse. A good portion of
the overwhelming avalanche is junk mail.
But there are definitely carefully crafted, potentially enlightening or useful
pieces that we simply don’t have time to read.

My Inbox currently holds
843 unread emails.

Vetting the hundreds of emails I receive daily among all
of my separate accounts is truly a science that involves various
considerations like efficiency, and etiquette. Triaging for these
purposes consists of a complex process that must be performed in meer
seconds.

It involves triangulating several variables to determine an
email’s worthiness: Sender, Subject, and that first little snippet of
text that gmail and some other services provide. Once an email is
downgraded from immediate priority, the time elapsed since receipt also
factors in.

And there are of course the ones I forget about or I take the time to write a response
only to place it in my Drafts folder , mistakenly thinking that I sent
it out.

I have to say that as usual, Google has their finger on our collective
pulse. They understand us and our problems. Gmail and Google Chat
have made email communication much less
unmanageable. Hopefully Google or whoever the next Google turns out to be, will determine some complex
proprietary algorithm that can prioritize my mail automatically.

But
until then, we suffer. At least I do.

What really gets me is that despite the toiling, despite knowing full- well the difficulty of managing multiple accounts and
multiple devices, most of us insist on this level of
communication. We’ve simply come to expect it.

I definitely become actively
distressed if someone doesn’t respond to what I deem is an
important email within a few hours. I have more RSS feeds and I am on
more email lists than I could begin to read even on an average day,
never mind when work, school and other responsibilities
converge and I’m forced to email via Blackberry. It’s sooooo frustratingly slow!

Basically, I require, no I demand, the right to ignore anywhere between 60-80% of my emails. Dammit.

But at least I know I’m not alone. I can’t tell you how often
I’ve been told or I’ve intimated, "Just shoot me an email, and let me know what’s going
on." We seem to insist that communication is the key. But
it’s not that simple, is it?

One very real consideration is how much tone and other important
but subtle linguistic inflections are lost in email and other forms of text
based communication. Note the phenomenon of the IM conversation gone terribly awry.

This
void of meaning leaves all of these millions of extra words, and
their intent, open to grave misinterpretation. I often wonder if all of
this increased interaction, is all too commonly, just failed
communication.

I’ve found that these issues can also be exacerbated by either an
unwillingness to hash things out clearly and openly, or the inability
to do so because of time constraints. How often might we simply carry
on with email/IM/text message interactions, based on misinterpretations
and preconceived notions, without asking questions or looking for
clarification?

Perhaps that email that seems like an inane question is
a lot less stupid than I might think. Maybe I shouldn’t ignore items
because that particular sender consistently bothers me with things I
don’t care about.

But the fact is, I need to tackle all of that reading for class, or spend the evening writing my next blog post. I would do a lot of things before spending time sending non-crucial emails. But at times, it might behoove me to inquire if I perceive an underlying problem in someone’s language.

At the risk of seeming deterministic myself, I do wonder if our
generation’s reliance on mediated conversation might diminish our
ability to handle specific problems such as confrontation.

If so, this
might not be a cultural shift but a paradoxical unintended consequence of media
technologies that undermines effective communication. In a
world where expectations for productivity climb to unnatural heights,
these pitfalls hinder the very productivity which
technology seeks to advance.

Considering the pervasive use of
communications media for sanctioned business purposes, I think this is
a potentially much more concerning problem. Useful email communication can
morph into dysnfunctional inefficiency quite easily.

Students may take research short cuts using the internet, failing
to earn the skills, and the battle scars, gleaned from the rigors of
performing research in the… *gasp* library. (I hear there is a lot of dust in there). But I think that if
anything, as a generation we are probably more knowledgeable
and capable in most capacities than our parents.

And wasn’t it those slacker generation- X kids who lacked ambition and
initiative?