The tech effect

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 March, 2008, 12:00am

It's noon in Central and Marita Quan has just slipped out of work for a quick lunch break with one of her friends. She is eyeing the restaurant menu when her BlackBerry buzzes. 'It was my friend,' she says. 'She's running late.'

Quan, a 34-year-old publishing professional says it is moments like this that make her question her relationships. 'It frustrates me when friends do this. Why do they think it's OK to be late as long as they text or call on their mobile phone? Being late is still a form of disrespect no matter the technology, but people just don't seem to understand that.'

Quan also dislikes it when people make plans and then call or text to change them at the last moment. 'It's like people have forgotten what it means to keep their word.'

So is this reliance on, and obsession with, new technology destroying our fundamental ability to communicate face-to-face, disconnecting rather than bringing us closer together?

Alice Yu, counsellor at ReSource the Counselling Centre, says some people actively choose technology as a way to dodge confrontation or emotional upset. It's all too easy - and tempting - to cancel dates, break off relationships, or conduct acrimonious divorce proceedings through the impersonal medium of e-mail or SMS. 'They are trying to avoid the expected confrontation and subsequent intense yet uncomfortable emotions,' says Yu.

This scenario was recently played out when Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales recently dumped his television commentator girlfriend online by using his own website. Wales updated her profile by posting his own personal statement: 'I am no longer involved with Rachel Marsden.' In response, Marsden put his clothes up for sale on eBay. The accompanying posting read: 'Hi, my name is Rachel and my [now ex] boyfriend, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, just broke up with me via an announcement on Wikipedia. It was such a classy move that I was inspired to do something equally classy myself, so I'm selling a couple of items of clothing he left behind in my NYC apartment on eBay.'

Yu also warns that a widening social network does not equate to deepening social connections. 'We have a misconception that information (for example; someone has a new job, is getting married, travelling to Africa) is the same as having true knowledge of a person, but this can only be superficial knowledge. The deeper personal opinions and feelings are often not transferred ... they cannot be clearly conveyed by technology, no matter how good it is.'

Accountant Kate Smith agrees. A close friend announced her pregnancy via Facebook: 'It was sent out to all 250 of her Facebook 'friends'. It sounds silly but I felt upset, we've been good friends for more than 10 years and I would have expected her to call me with the news first. She doesn't have such a close relationship with the vast majority of her Facebook contacts, and to be honest I wonder if they'd even be interested.'

And the effect reaches farther than purely personal relationships. Dan Johnson is chief information officer at a leading Hong Kong bank. 'Yes, people will inter-office message each other rather than walk down the corridor. It can lead to a silent, staid environment where all you hear is the tap, tap, tap of keyboards. The problem with e-mail is that it can often be construed wrongly. It can create friction and tension and sound incredibly aggressive, when that was not its intention. This is far less likely in a verbal exchange.'

But Johnson says informal rules governing the etiquette of technology are starting to appear: 'People are supposed to put their BlackBerrys on the table at meetings and not surreptitiously use them; mobile phones have to be switched to silent, and it's not acceptable to send a text to cancel a meeting - but people still do it.'

Yu says if we don't sit down to communicate with others, we can lose out on practicing reading emotional cues, and become less skilled at picking up unspoken signals. 'We pay attention to our phone, our BlackBerry, the internet, but neglect the real person sitting next to us in the same room. We may lose out on practicing tolerance and skills in constructively resolving interpersonal conflicts or difficulties because we have more freedom to leave an internet conversation, or opt not to reply to a phone or SMS.'

Johnson says the real shift in the adaptation of technology in the workplace comes from young people entering the industry. 'Kids coming out of university feel it's perfectly acceptable to put text abbreviations into resumes, it is their mode of communication. But despite some hiccups, I believe technology is connecting people, rather than disconnecting them. It offers so much potential.'

Clive Dawes, a technology expert at one of Hong Kong's international schools, recalls his experience at a seminar in London: 'A month prior to the event everyone attending posted to a Facebook group what they wanted to get out of the session. Facebook is an excellent forum for creating discussion groups, and it certainly helped me to get more out of the seminar.'

Dawes agrees that new technology is all about collaboration, and that introducing children to the concept of uploading and sharing information, and interacting with each other and experts online is the way forward. 'I used to go into the classroom and be the font of all knowledge. Now teachers need to become mediators, there's so much knowledge out there that can be easily accessed. If we're learning about the Tudors - wouldn't it be better if my pupils could speak to the National Archive via Facebook, than simply read a two-dimensional textbook?

'[The older generation] intellectualise about it, [younger people] just use it,' says Dawes.

'We must completely change the way we teach, technology is going in one way. In the US there is a push to change the curriculum and move towards more sharing and interaction, and it is something Hong Kong has also recognised (by recommending that computers be incorporated into every classroom). We are preparing children for a society where people collaborate.'

Children instinctively understand new technology and are embracing it. Michelle Lee, 10, has been using computers since she was five; it's an integral part of her learning. The first thing she does when she gets home is log into MSN Messenger to chat with her friends: 'We don't just talk to each other, we help with homework ... it's a fast and easy way to share stuff.'

Of course, the worry is that if children spend too much time alone in front of a computer, their social skills will suffer.

All the experts agree technology can exacerbate isolation, if a person so chooses - no matter what their age. Today, it is entirely possible to organise your life (shopping, banking, socialising) without ever leaving the house.

Dawes says it's all about balance: 'Just because you've got lots of friends on your Facebook list, doesn't necessarily mean you've got lots of friends, it's not real, it's a false situation. Just because someone 'pokes' you, you need to know who they are, what do they look like?'