Sunday, April 14, 2013

News From Captain Obvious: Frequent Texters Likely To Be Airheads!

Honestly. They've bothered to research this, apparently. The article in question: Frequent Texters comes from Winnipeg University.

A lot of it is fluff, full of buzzwords. But the meat of it concerns college-age students who are texting two and three hundred times per day. According to the article, they "tend to be significantly less reflective than those who text less often."

Somehow, I don't think they're using the term 'reflective' to mean 'shiny'.

Underneath the academic-speak and the utterly obvious observations (what sane individual can find time to text two hundred times a day? If that figure is distributed over, say, a sixteen-hour waking period, you're still looking at one text every five minutes.) you do get a glimpse of an interesting phenomenon. Questions arise.

Who are these people? Why are they more interested in commenting than in actually taking part or observing? How does a culture of people like this sustain itself? If you're constantly engaged in sending texts, who is receiving them, and what value are those texts providing?

I think I may have mentioned before that I don't much like mobile phones. They have their uses. I'm glad to have mine when I go away to conventions and the like, because it allows me to make use of the very limited time at such events. I can catch up with people I get to see very rarely, and make good use of the opportunity to be together.

Beyond that? The things are appalling.

I'm fascinated by people's increasing dependence on smartphones. Oh, they're awfully good at looking information up via the Internet, but when it comes to recalling it, and then actually fitting it into a pattern and making use of it, I see less and less. And there's a thing: you can call up information to answer a question, yes. But figuring out uses for that information, ways to put answers into action -- that takes concentration, time, and imagination.

We've been down this path before, culturally. When we began printing and distributing books -- paying information into a shared cultural database -- we abandoned the practise of memorising long pieces of narrative. These days, the idea of somebody memorising the Iliad and the Odyssey for performance purposes seems... heroic, really. Impossible!

It wasn't, though. At one time, feats of memorisation of that sort were relatively commonplace.

How many of you still remember phone numbers? How many of you can go the to the supermarket for more than ten items without logging it into your handy memory adjunct. (We used to use lists on paper. I'm not in favour, I admit. Paper is messy, while digital files are easily dealt with. There are definitely useful things about these critters.)

So we're outsourcing our memories. And we're de-emphasising face-to-face contact, choosing to stay in touch through digital means -- which changes our capacity to 'read' people, and changes the way we express our own emotions, and so forth. And all of this is the tip of an iceberg. For every stupid study like the one I've cited from Winnipeg U Department of the Fucking Obvious, I would guess there are a hundred much more subtle effects nobody has yet considered.

The more of our capacities and our qualities we hand over to the shared cultural cloud, the fewer we are required to maintain as individuals. It's amusing at the moment, watching the next generation grow up with a whole range of digital communications skills that my generation lacked -- while simultaneously lacking an array of abilities and qualities that defined my generation, and previous generations. Change is always interesting.

I just wonder what's going to happen when we drop some seriously important individual qualities or abilities into the cultural cloud.

Is it possible that one day, the very definition of "human" will require connection to the cultural cloud? Will people lose enough individual capacity that they become dependent on their interface with a databank that has more 'humanity' than they do?

Has it happened already?


  1. Phone numbers: I never remembered more than about three phone numbers. I had a business card with thirty numbers written in tiny letters in my wallet. I still do. From those thirty emergency numbers I can re-create the 300 in my phone. Shopping: I never use a shopping list. I downloaded an app. It never took. My memory (mostly) covers shopping. Texts: Almost all my texts are used to better co-ordinate face-to-face meetings. I like hour long calls with people too distant to travel too. I prefer a text from people who are close to a short phone call.

    One strong theme is a fracturing of narrative. You could assume that someone of your age and background would have exposure to the press narratives and directives, from newspapers and television. I feel my generation is one of the first to 'opt out' of these narratives. I have gone nearly two decades without watching television news and reading newspaper news. It was just SO BAD that I sort of skipped out of receiving news at all nearly five years, and then moved to the internet as it came into utility for news gathering.

  2. I'm a pretty full on extrovert, but I don't feel the urge to barrage people with texts or updates. My averages seem to be about four texts a day, and two facebook updates a day.

    I do notice that in face to face conversations, recalling a persons facebook update is simply a shortcut into a more in depth conversation. It is like the 'how are the kids' opening line to a parent.

    Non facbook acquaintances get more generic conversational gambits, until common ground is found.

    1. Interesting. I find it the other way. If I've read all about somebody on Facebook, there's generally not a lot I want to know from them face=to=face.


  3. You closing lines suggest an interesting possible future, and it brought to mind for me Phil Foglio’s Psmiths from Buck Godot but I question one of your comments at the heart of your piece

    “Oh, they're awfully good at looking information up via the Internet, but when it comes to recalling it, and then actually fitting it into a pattern and making use of it, I see less and less”

    I am unsure if this is correlation or causation. It is possible that there is a link, but it certainly hasn’t been established that there has been a reduction in humanity’s ability to “figuring out uses for that information, ways to put answers into action -- that takes concentration, time, and imagination” and then evidence to show that the reason for any decline if observed is due to the use of a particular digital technology.

    The article you link, a news report of a “ stupid study like the one I've cited from Winnipeg U Department of the Fucking Obvious” however my suspicions were raised firstly by the lack of direct link in the article to the published paper, or at least the Universities news page. By using a search engine I was able to quickly find the University’s news page which reveals it was part of a “a one hour on-line psychology research survey that included measures of texting frequency, personality traits, and life goals” back in 2013. Also the researchers Trapnell and Sinclair were particularly focused on how the use of social media can affect their perception of other ethnic groups.

    The problem of course is this was a study of 1st year psychology students, so a self-selecting bunch whose perception of what constitutes ‘reflection’ may differ with what we expect. Also this is a study from a poster, not an academic paper in a peer reviewed journal. Trapnell, P., and L. Sinclair. "Texting frequency and the moral shallowing hypothesis." Poster presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, San Diego, CA. 2012.

    Of course I would love to have the mental skills to recall word perfect the ancient ballads, or all the 9 digit phone numbers I have ever used but the advantage is I don’t have to, and with the cloud I can ensure even if my phone dies I do not lose those numbers or addresses. If society collapses and those skills are needed then I will develop them, and those who maintained those skills will have an advantage over me for that generation but humanity itself can develop them again it’s like humanities brains have degraded physiologically. However in the modern society familiarity and the ability to find and sift this information that is stored in various digital locations and using smartphones to seek them out is a higher priority skill.

    I don’t think relying on a tool, abeit an address book, smartphone or google means that I have to have a less examined life. There is no guarantee that people who text two hundred times a day if they didn’t have this technology would have spent the time considering theirs.

    In A.E van Vogt's 'The Voyage of the Space Beagle' they mention a profession of Nexialist who can synthesise disparate knowledge and disciplines would be employing the sort of skills which our digital outsource would make possible.

    1. I never said there weren't advantages to the new tech. And I'm all about the cultural cloud. The changes to our society which occurred once we could outsource storage of vital information into readily available and distributable books were... beyond revolutionary, really.

      But it's part of a pattern. The cleverer our tech gets, the more information/power goes into the cloud, and the less actually remains within the individual. Yes, there are advantages to smartphonery.

      All I'm saying is that there's likely to be a cost, and we won't know what it is until it's already been paid.

      Oh -- and in the meantime, the New Tech is empowering some really f**king piss-poor behaviours.

  4. "News From Captain Obvious: Frequent Texters Likely To Be Airheads!"

    Well, isn't that just great. I finally learned how to text, and do it very often, only to have the illusion of tech competency dashed.

    Sometimes I feel the universe conspires with fate to deny me my destiny.

  5. Just re reading a trashy RE Fiest novel where one of the secondary plot lines is the fact that faerie tales have no regional flavour, that TV and books and Disney have turned that culture into one solid mass.