Smart phones, tablets, laptops and other marvels of the digital age keep us more in touch with each other than ever before; yet because of the way we use these devices, sometimes it seems we’re more disconnected than ever. When we “multitask” while carrying on a conversation with another person, are we being technologically savvy or just plain rude? Two social media experts — a Georgia Tech professor of the Generation X cohort, and a mobile strategist of the millennial generation — weigh in on the subject.
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By Ian Bogost
Everyone’s been there: You’re having a face-to-face conversation when your interlocutor reaches for her smartphone. Just as often you’re the culprit — pawing your iPhone at a family dinner, stealing glances at Facebook during a business meeting.
It took 50 years for computers to move from office basements to handbags, and scarcely five more for them to enter our pockets. Now we take them everywhere.
Laptops, tablets, smartphones: They are always on hand, and thanks to their portability, always at the ready. Even worse, they’re always connected, and the boundless potential of a hypothetical interaction is always better than the specific reality of one actually taking place.
But should we give in to the temptation of betraying face-to-face interactions in favor of computer-mediated ones? Isn’t it rude to turn our attention away from people right in front of us?
You already know the answer. Of course it’s rude to disrupt one conversation just in case another one might be more interesting. Obvious exceptions exist — family emergencies, urgent requests from a superior — but they rarely occur anyway.
To ask if task-switching to your smartphone is rude is to ask the wrong question.
Instead, we should wonder why we seem so willing to adopt this particular kind of discourtesy. Some might answer that we haven’t done so willingly, that we’re compelled, even addicted to our gadgets and the services they deliver. There might be some truth to that claim. In fact, in the article “The Machine Zone” in a recent issue of The Atlantic (http://bit.ly/1avie3w), Alexis Madrigal compared Facebook’s product design to that of casino slot machines.
But compulsion isn’t the whole story. The truth is, we secretly want to be rude. Rudeness is a sign of success, of power. Think of a figure who would willingly turn away from a conversation to take a call, who would show up late without apology, who would maintain total contingency in his affairs just in case something more important comes along.
It’s none other than the corporate executive, who also happens to be the early adopter of the mobile phone and the Blackberry that prefigure today’s connected devices. The executive always holds time in reserve, because he sees his time (or hers, but mostly his) as more precious than yours. “I’m sorry, I have to take this,” is less a statement of deference than it is one of authority: “I am important enough to snub you.”
For better or worse, the businessman is the hero of contemporary culture. It’s no surprise that his manner would win out over Miss Manners in the public imagination. We rarely admit it, but we all want to be important — yet most of us aren’t. Smartphones let us simulate that importance, replacing boardroom urgency with household triviality.
And even though they seem like populist devices, smartphones can never fully shed their origins as rapacious instruments of executive grandstanding. There will always be something rude about smartphone use, because smartphones allow us all to play the role of a cultural paragon we didn’t choose, one we may even despise, but one whose influence we can’t disavow.
Ian Bogost is Ivan Allen College Distinguished Chair in Media Studies and a professor of interactive computing at Georgia Tech.
By Ashley Twist
Say “please” and “thank you.” Be on time. Hold the door for others. The basic rules of etiquette are familiar and, for the most part, well employed. These straightforward guidelines are both defined and engrained in our culture, but today we’re facing a new etiquette challenge. With the introduction of mobile devices and continued technological advances, it seems nobody is quite clear on socially appropriate digital behavior.
Most office workers spend between six and eight hours per day in front of a computer. Mobile users keep their phones within arm’s reach 24/7. Tablet users spend 90 minutes on them each day. While the Internet age has represented a mostly positive shift in our society, our devices have essentially become extensions of ourselves, and somewhere along the way, we’ve forgotten our social graces.
We’ve all been in a meeting where, although someone is talking, nobody is listening. Everyone is too busy “multitasking” via phone, laptop or tablet to pay attention, let alone contribute. (Fun fact about multitasking: Only 2 percent of people can actually multitask effectively. The rest are lessening their productivity without realizing it.)
We’ve become less polite when, on the seemingly rare occasion, we interact face-to-face because there are no defined social rules for devices. Some people say that depending on with whom and where you are, it’s socially acceptable to be heads-down on a device. Does that mean it’s OK that 67 percent of people check their email or use mobile web while on a date? Does that mean you should give your boss more respect and attention than your mom when she’s speaking? No. All interactions and meetings are equal, which means, devices down.
Believe me, I’m as engrained in the digital world as anyone, and probably moreso than most, as my job revolves around mobile technology. (At this moment, I have three mobile phones, a tablet and a computer on my work desk.) Constant connectivity does not automatically give us the excuse to ignore, half-listen or “multitask” while someone else is speaking. I equate in-hand behavior — email, texting, social networks — to interrupting one conversation to start a new one with someone else. Just because your side exchange takes place in your palm doesn’t make it less distracting or rude.
If you’re going to participate in digital activities during in-person interactions, the polite thing to do is at least announce what you’re doing: “I’m texting Angie to see if she wants to come to the movie with us,” or, “I’m going to add that meeting to our calendars right now.” You get the idea. If you tell people what you’re up to, you give others the satisfaction of knowing that you’re not distracted and disengaged.
We’re about to see another radical technological change with the emergence of wearable technologies like Google Glass and Samsung’s Galaxy Gear watch. They will once again shift our social behavior. While we’re still defining mobility’s impact on our culture, the basic rules of etiquette remain simple and timeless. If someone’s talking, it is polite to listen. So put down your devices and pay attention, no matter what the situation.
Ashley Twist is the mobile innovation strategist at Engauge, an Atlanta digital marketing agency.