Cell Phones and Fall of Western Civ

>> Monday, April 13, 2009

Kevin Drum has a post up on the collapse of western civilization due to the inability of 20 somethings to communicate in a manner other than text. The basis for his post is an article by George Packer. I thought i would take the opportunity to address this topic as i am in fact one of these young 20 somethings who have grown up with the advance of cell phone technology and feel qualified to offer my observations about my peers. Packer writes,

It turned out that cell phones had become a major headache in his work. Customers called him all the time, expecting him to hear every little complaint even while he was wrestling with a roof hatch. Meanwhile, they were more and more unreliable, not answering their phones, missing scheduled appointments.

....“It’s the technology,” the roofer said. “They don’t know how to deal with a human being. They stand there with that text shrug” — he hunched his shoulders, bent his head down, moved from side to side, looking anywhere but at me — “and they go, ‘Ah, ah, um, um,’ and they just mumble. They can’t talk any more.” This inadequacy with physical space and direct interaction was an affliction of the educated, he said — “the more educated, the worse.”

....This was a completely new phenomenon in the roofer’s world: a mass upper class that was so immersed in symbolic and digital cerebration that it had become incapable of carrying out the most ordinary functions — had become, in effect, like small children with Asperger’s symptoms. It was a ruling class that, out of sheer over-civilization, was quickly losing the ability to hold onto its power.

to which drum responds

WTF? These folks call constantly on their cell phones, so it's not that they've lost the ability to carry on a verbal conversation. It's just that they can't do it face-to-face. Do I have that right?

Is anyone else skeptical about this? Obviously I have zero experience with 20-something metrosexuals in New York City, but, seriously? Is this happening? More anecdotes, please.

First, if you read the article you find that packer is writing about times when customers have intermediaries present who handle communication. Like having your lawyer with you to talk to the police or negotiate your divorce. The client doesnt talk. Second is that the roofer seems to segue into a comment about how all of these people will end up dependent on the government. This seems rather dubious to me. I havent met or heard of any friend or acquaintance unable to talk face to face with anyone due to an over reliance on text conversation. I might ask a friend familiar with roofing or contracting to come with me when i meet a roofer or a contractor because i lack general knowledge in that area, but i wouldn't have them do all the talking.

As far as communication habits and some general tendencies of those who have grown up using cell phones and texting as common means of communication there is one common behavior -- the lack of concrete plans. From a comment in the drum post.

I finally got a cell phone again when I realized it was hurting me. People in their 20s don't make real plans anymore- they have a vague sense that they're doing something with someone at some point, but all the details are negotiable, right up to the moment that it happens. So if I'm supposed to go to the movies with friends at 7 on Tuesday, I could get a text at 6:59 changing that to 8, or to Wednesday, or cancelling, or anything. When I didn't have a cell phone, I used to waste an enormous amount of time waiting for people who weren't coming, because the plans had changed and they couldn't text and tell me. When I confronted them about it, they would tell me that if I had a phone, things like that wouldn't happen.

This is very true. My friends and i will agree that we are going out on a friday night. The time will generally be 10. The transportation, and place are all decided about 15 minutes before we leave. The reason for a lack of concrete planning is simply that it is unnecessary. While it used to be that in order for a group to assemble everyone needed a prearranged meeting place and time now with cell phones and instant communication people can find each other or change plans without worrying that things will fall apart.

This flexible attitude leads many people to view young people as flaky but is really just a difference in the general ability of young people to manage time on the fly. Its more dynamic and, when done correctly, allows for an increased efficiency. For example, knowing you can push back something 15 minutes may allow you to perform an extra task that would have had to be pushed off to a more inconvenient time later. instead the plans can change, people can take care of their business without being tied to times set arbitrarily to begin with. The problems in this scenario arise when your out of the loop of communication as the commenter was. He likely prevented his friends from making optimal use of their time because he could never be reached to modify plans.

As far as face to face communication goes, it is my preferred method. The reason for this is that i find it easier and more effective to conduct a difficult or complex conversation in person than by phone or text. What texting and leaving messages does allow for it people to try and avoid tough conversations. this is a pint made by another commenter in that thread.

Face to face communication, especially when it involves negotiation, or a message that one person doesn't want to hear, requires courage. Courage requires practice. The existence of text-based communication allows you to avoid all the situations where, in the past, you would have practiced. So I kinda see where this dynamic might work for a some people. But there are plenty of jobs and hobbies that require and even thrive on face-to-face competition and negotiation, which will develop the skills needed.

Another view of the same phenomenon is that text-based communications allow the socially phobic to actually express themselves. Kind of a strange prosthetic.

There is an anxiety in, say, calling up a girl and asking her on a date. You have to dial the number, wait for the phone to ring. Then you have to talk with her with the possibility that she rejects you. Texting and asking apparently reduces that anxiety. I still prefer to do it in person.

Texting has its place though. Some conversations are so simple and not particularly important that you can have them over a longer time span. for example you text you friend about what time you want to meet for lunch. text also ensures you dont interrupt whatever that person is doing. It allows them to take their time in getting back to you without the hassle of checking a voicemail. What is the difference between hearing a message and reading it. most of my friends just call back without even listening to the voicemail.

I cannot say i have noticed an inability among the educate or uneducated to carry on conversations in person. The only explanation i can think of for the observations of the roofer is that the customers were intimidated and unacquainted with contracting and so wanted others more knowledgeable and better able to deal with the contractors to handle it for them. I guess this is possibly due to a general ability to avoid difficult or uncomfortable conversations through the use of text messages but it seems unlikely.


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