Home Engineering The dark side of technology
Isolating technologies and the young
For the young, the primary villain in my accounting scheme is our fixation on continuous communications with mobile phones and computers. This is not real human contact, as the electronics do not provide tones of voice that distinguish between threats, affection, irony, humour, or puns, any of which might have been implied with the same set of words. Therefore, misunderstanding can easily be triggered by prejudice, a misreading of the text, or reading into it what we want to hear.
As I have already mentioned, these are all features that are crucial in the design of robots, where we must recognize the problems in order to make them more marketable. However, we gloss over them when dealing with humans. For us, electronic contacts totally lack the crucial and highly valuable information and subtlety that comes from seeing facial and body language, or responding to pheromones, or all the other chemical signals that we unconsciously exude during a face-to-face meeting. Instead, the machines give us an anodyne and imperfect conversation via a device that has been consciously designed so that it does not even provide a true power and frequency response of the words and sounds. That is feasible, but apparently we find it too disconcerting. So, electronic conversations mean that, at best, we are having only a partial contact, even though we can do it from anywhere where we have phone coverage.
Despite this failing, the current generations have a pressing need to contact people who are not actually with them. This obsession frequently seems more important than talking to those around them. The pattern is immediately obvious in cafes, where one can see a whole table of ‘friends’ using their mobiles for talking, texting, or emailing other people.
Vocal, visual, and physical contacts are not just adult human needs, but absolutely essential between parents and babies to form family bonds and stimulate mental development (both for children and parents). Unfortunately, electronic communications can destroy this life-defining situation, in the very early moments when they should be central to family bonding. It may be unintentional, but we start to isolate babies and small children when the adults are having mobile phone contacts with friends. It is very common to see babies in prams and pushchairs, with parents who are wheeling them along, totally ignoring them, as they are chatting on the mobile.
The early months of childhood are absolutely critical: this is a time when conversation, eye contact, and touch between parents and child are life-forming. Without it, not only social but also mental skills can be permanently impaired. Once this opportunity is lost, it can never be reestablished. The losers are therefore not just the children, but also the parents and indeed the entire society, as we will be raising children, and a new generation, who basically feel unwanted, unloved, and inadequate, and unable to properly communicate. Their future parenting skills will similarly be undermined.
I suspect that one of the reasons the parent-to-baby isolation has increased in the last century is that old-fashioned prams had the baby facing the pusher. In ‘modern’ designs of pushchair, however, it is fashionable to have the baby facing forward, away from the adult, with no visual contact between them. It seems there is the need to either return to the earlier pram design or add some ‘new’ technology in the form of a rear-view mirror onto modern buggies. Obviously this is too simplistic to be marketable, so instead let me suggest perhaps a pair of screens and cameras so baby and pusher can see one another!
It is very easy to underestimate the importance of the personal contacts compared with conversations transmitted solely by other means. There can easily be errors and ambiguity when reading the words that would not exist if we were listening to them with all the inflexions of speech.
Written ambiguity can of course be both useful and intentional. On one occasion, I had a reference for an applicant for a job with me that said, ‘If you can get him to work for you, then you will be very lucky’. A telephone call clearly revealed what the referee was implying. I employed someone else.
This same loss of non-ambiguous range of meanings, when we have no access to the speech patterns, delivery, pauses, intensity, inflexions, tones, or speed of delivery, is a major but overlooked difficulty in our daily electronic correspondence via texts and emails. The written communications are also inferior to personal contacts, even if the text has been carefully considered. We prefer speech. In truly high-technology developments of future personal robots, there is now a detailed study and emphasis on trying to make robots that respond to our moods, not just a set of commands. This means they will recognize changes in the pitch of our voice, delivery speed and volume, and the way we pick our words. For example, when addressing a small child, a friend, someone we dislike or are jealous of, or an adult in authority, we consciously vary all these factors. Once this robot speech recognition becomes routinely possible, then the irony is that we may then prefer to have a conversation with a sympathetic robot (or electronic ‘friend’) rather than an electronic conversation with a real person. Indeed, since the robot will inevitably be only programmed to be caring or sycophantic, we will become ever more isolated from one another.
There are very clear reasons for this, as we can be sure that the electronic friend or robot is never critical, offensive, or lying to us. Therefore our sense of personal worth will be inflated, and we will always be happy with them. It is a very false sense of reality, but for many people it will be effectively a drug-forming habit, as it will continuously boost our selfimage and release serotonin and other happy responses in our brains. Commercial success in robot manufacture will follow, but the value for individuals is less obvious.
As children grow older and go to school, the situation may not improve. Large numbers of children are now given mobile phones at an early age. Undoubtedly, phones are useful, but dependence on them is setting the pattern of electronic addiction for communication and further undermining their ability to make person-to-person contacts. Financially, there will be peer pressure to have the newest version of each phone (i.e. a major annual expense), with all the currently fashionable apps and games, plus home computers, and yet more electronic games. Those who do not have the latest gadgets will be treated as outcasts. The world of children at school is a harsh one.
Young people are far less secure and worldly-wise than adults, so are unprepared for the pitfalls and misleading effects of the electronic age of communication. These come in various guises. The first is that if they are not in frequent contact with many other children, then they feel they are isolated and rejected. The number is more important than the quality of the contacts, and in many cases the electronic contacts would never be matched by genuine friendships if they spent time together. There are further dark sides to these networks, because children (and adults) naively put random thoughts on their Facebook pages, or post anonymous comments that may appear quite differently from the way they intended them, or be spontaneous, and something they would not have said if thinking carefully. These widely spread comments may be false, or out of context, but once sent, there is no way anyone can alter them, as the first impression has the impact, not the retraction or correction.
The same applies to cyberbullying and rumour-mongering. These are genuinely major and serious problems, in part because they can be anonymous, and in part because the impact of the comments may not be understood by those making them. Even more importantly, they are serious because they are often comments that the blogger would not have had the courage, or stupidity, to say in a face-to-face meeting. Children are even more sensitive than adults, so these are deeply emotive and damaging aspects of electronic communications. Cyberbully- ing is widespread, permanently damaging, and difficult to block.
Teenage children seem particularly vulnerable to friendships developed electronically, without realizing that the new ‘friend’ may not be anything like the image that is sent electronically. Photos and other details can be totally fictitious. Further, there have been numerous examples where young people have sent indiscreet or pornographic images of themselves to their electronic friends. There are criminals encouraging such pictures, as they are then used as blackmail to avoid disclosure. The mental pressure on the children has resulted in a number of suicides. The numbers and total scale of such exploitation and criminal activity is difficult to estimate, but appears to be increasing.
In total, the time spent on the mobile or at a computer screen (or watching TV) is soaring, with a reported doubling within the last decade. The many detailed surveys from both the UK and the USA are consistently confirming that the number of hours is increasing steadily, especially among children and young adults. This isolation from real person-to-person contacts undermines the longer-term social abilities of everyone involved, but is an increasingly divisive trap for those who are insecure, vulnerable, or from families that offer no alternative sense of direction. In many cases, the total time spent on phones, online, or watching TV, is quoted at incredible numbers of six to ten hours per day! Many children say they go to school to sleep, as during the night they are constantly checking their networking pages to see if they have been mentioned.
Unfortunately, this is not the end of the list of bad side effects. Defining life in terms of a computer screen or mobile phone means we invariably adopt a bad posture (most of us do), which undermines health. Eye strain, lack of exercise, and remaining indoors are therefore follow-on problems, as well as poor eating habits. This has caused a significant rise in myopia (short sightedness) within the twenty-first century. Numbers cited are increases of around 75 per cent in both Western Europe and North America. It is not surprising that within the last decade, the physical ability of the young, compared with their parents at the same age, has shown the first-ever reversal that the younger generation are not as fit and speedy as their parents. This is a hidden problem, as in a world with an ever-larger population, there are many great young athletes. Their achievements are highly publicized, and we fail to recognize they are a tiny minority. In the same way, there are many millions who watch, discuss, and are fixated on football, cricket, rugby, or baseball, but their involvement in sport is totally as observers, not as active players.
Physical activity and performance are measurable, so these types of decline can be documented, whereas the psychological behaviour and changes in mental attitude are difficult to quantify. The quality of deep, long-lasting friendships suffers because of the reliance on rapid or superficial electronic contacts. Many will argue it is an effective route to meeting, dating, and marriage or partnership, but equally, it is obvious that there are a host of websites where the objective is to find a sexual partner for a very brief passing moment.
A further feature is that the Internet offers an easy access to porn, cybersex, and computer games and films where the objective is violence. Sociologists argue about how resilient young people are to exposure to such material, but there is no doubt that for many people, continuous viewing of these items means their moral standards are undermined. The consequence is a total lack of reality and sensitivity. They fail to understand how to treat others or recognize that warfare is not a screen game with images of bombs, explosions, and guns, but it involves real people, pain, and suffering. Teaching troops such insensitive attitudes via computer exposure is already used in military training, but reversal of that dehumanizing process for return to normal civilian life is ineffective. Therefore, this pattern implies that for the rest of the population, the exposure is a brutalization of attitudes, and a distinctly poor training for a civilized society.
To continue this list would seem repetitive, but there are also more subtle damaging effects. One such is that because electronic access to information is rapid and effective, many people I know (including mature intelligent ones), say they never trouble to remember anything anymore, as they can always recall it from their computer links. The weakness of this argument is that because they have not had to work to find and remember something, it is not ingrained in their memory, so it will not be valuable when they come to think about related topics (or want to impress their friends with erudition). The second aspect of relying on an Internet source is that, from many places outside of major cities, there is no access or Internet link. Finally, as I have sometimes discovered to my cost, websites that had some really useful information have been removed, or are no longer accessible, or they were updated, and the items that interested me have vanished. I have frequently used website science courses from other universities when preparing my own lectures (this is research, not plagiarism!), but later, when I decided to add more material, I have found the source had only been maintained for the duration of their course.
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