Empty promise

Technology, from text messaging to videophones, has promised to

Today most Americans really do live in a world straight from
science fiction. Communication can be instant and worldwide.
Couples can speak to each other through online video connections,
exchange messages across hundreds of miles with a keystroke and the
ding of an inbox prompt. And they can, of course, be reminded of
their favorite songs with polyphonic ring tones.
Today most Americans really do live in a world straight from science fiction. Communication can be instant and worldwide. Couples can speak to each other through online video connections, exchange messages across hundreds of miles with a keystroke and the ding of an inbox prompt. And they can, of course, be reminded of their favorite songs with polyphonic ring tones.

But for all the miraculous access we’ve been given, that instant ability to reach across continents and oceans may be hurting our relationships more than it helps them, some researchers postulate.

A 2002 study on Finland’s mobile culture, cited in the book “Perpetual Contact: Mobile Communication, Private Talk, Public Performance,” found that the perpetual small talk of cell phone users – “Where are you now?” or “What’s up, girl?” – leave users with little more than empty conversations, alienating them from one another rather pulling them closer.

The theory makes sense to Gilroy resident Kristina Renn. The stay-at-home mom of four whose children range from ages three to nine depends heavily on her cell phone to run her at-home business. Despite her dependence on the technology, she sees its pitfalls, too.

Instead of meeting friends face-to-face in order to share coffee or conversation, Renn said she sees an increasing number of people merely making a phone call while they’re on the road or running errands.

“What you end up having and what I think (our kids) will end up having, is relationships on the go, and the quality suffers then,” said Renn. “You can’t fully devote your time to someone when you’ve also got to concentrate enough to drive down the road or do any of the 50 million other things you can do on the phone.”

Renn’s assessment is almost exactly what researchers found, but Gilroy homemaker Maelynn Craig, a former Intel employee, sees her on-the-go relationships differently.

Craig makes calls to friends and relatives when she’s in the car, giving her more time to spend at home with her 10-month old son and two-and-a-half-year-old daughter.

“I probably write fewer letters, but I talk to people more often, and I stay in touch better,” said Craig. “Maybe (technology) will just keep us more linked. Already you see kids with cell phones calling their parents. They’re in contact with their family and their friends, and maybe there’s a safety issue there. They can always pick up the phone if they’re in trouble and reach someone.”

In fact, it is this constant reachability that may be an issue.

People can call a landline to transfer private information such as credit card numbers or share the intimate details of their relationships with complete strangers while talking on a cell phone in the grocery store.

They can text message quietly in a meeting and trade information instantly with e-mail, sometimes too quickly pressing the send button without considering their messages’ ramifications. Following these instant options, letter writing and other slow forms of personal communication are down.

Even banks advertise complete online services, support systems and statements.

But there is a benefit, some say. The anonymity of phone and chat room conversation can actually lead to deeper, more fulfilling conversations and relationships because these media allow people to open up and discuss their feelings without fear of face-to-face rejection, according to Jeff Gavin, a professor at England’s University of Bath.

Gavin found that an estimated 6 million Britons are looking for love online – compare that to an estimated 38 million Americans visited online personal sites in October 2003 alone, according to Web-tracker ComScore Networks – and that online relationships, many of which are developed through the exchange of e-mail, online chat and phone conversations prior to in-person meetings, appear to be just as strong as those initiated other ways.

Study participants, aged 18 to 65, said their online relationships averaged seven months, and nearly 20 percent of them lasted more than a year.

“It seems that these relationships have a similar level of success as ones formed in more conventional ways,” said Gavin in a statement that accompanied the study’s February release.

Among the study’s other interesting findings, men tend to be more committed to their online relationships than women, possibly because they tend to be more emotive online than in person, and that most users shied away from using Web cams.

“They feel it’s important not to see their partners for some time,” said Gavin. “There is something special about text-based relationships.”

While today’s parents may question the effect technology will have on their children, one old hand at the practice of parenting said he thinks it will all be all right.

“There were a couple of times when I had to pick my daughter up from a concert or something where I had to wander around and look for her,” said Morgan Hill resident Tom Harms, a retiree. “I would have really liked having a cell phone then, and it’s good for parents and kids. My daughter-in-law keeps in touch with both of her teenagers that way. She knows where they are and what they’re doing.”

Harms is also thankful for his own cell phone. While he said he’s not a computer user, he feels more secure having the cell phone because he knows he’ll always have a phone with him in the event of an emergency.

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