I have a friend who is notorious—though I doubt she knows it—for texting during lunch dates, hands cupped surreptitiously in her lap. (I've heard this called the BlackBerry prayer.) The subtext, intentional or not, is that these messages might be more interesting than her companion. She isn't the only one having trouble staying in the moment. "Recently at a party, a pal and I were Facebooking about the event while it was still going on," says Petrow. "It's tough to really be present these days."
Yes, it's technically possible to be connected to 3,000 people—anytime, anywhere—but that's not always a good thing. "Our society is all about multitasking," says Daniela Schreier, assistant professor at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. "But, really, humans can focus on only one thing at a time." We have to actively decide to pay attention to the one we're with. "Vow to not let technology get in the way," says Petrow.
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Sometimes, though, it's because we don't want to talk to someone that we lean on technology. A Retrevo.com survey of iPhone users found that one in three had broken up with someone via text message. "We've definitely become more insensitive," says Schreier. "I counseled a couple who had been together six years, planning to marry." Yet one day the man ended things via text message. "Five words to end a relationship of six years," says Schreier. Surely if he had looked her in the eye, he might have at least offered some sort of explanation.
In the end it's difficult to gauge the true impact of technology on our brains and personal relationships, because it depends on so many factors and therefore varies widely from person to person. With her cultural anthropologist's eye, Bell is sanguine. "We tend to forget that this stuff is really still new," she says. "As a culture, we once argued about whether we should watch TV during dinner. Over time, people figured it out." To support her argument, she mentions two different trips to the U.K. "Seven years ago, everyone in the pub had a mobile phone in the middle of the table and would answer immediately if it rang. Two years later phones were pocketed and turned off." Eventually, common sense and etiquette kick in, she says, once the initial excitement wears off. "Right now, we're still hammering out the rules." We'll get there.