Even before the tech boom, my husband, Dan, had a hard time making decisions. Now that he's armed with a cell phone and an Internet connection, even something as simple as choosing a restaurant for dinner with friends can become a drawn-out series of texts, tweets, e-mails, and phone calls that ends with no resolution and a lamely uttered, "Let's talk again later." Too often we are still trying to hammer out details when everyone is in their cars driving aimlessly, in need of a destination. I find this maddening. On the other hand, when he's telling a story I've already heard at least 100 times, I'm not above checking in on my social network to stave off boredom.
So much human interaction happens these days with a tech assist that I worry we are turning into a bunch of self-centered, noncommittal—not to mention distracted—individuals. I mean, seriously, is it necessary to crowd-source every dinner decision? Is it rude to check Facebook when you're out to lunch with a friend? And from a bigger-picture perspective, where is the line between public and private?
According to a 2009 Intel study, 80 percent of online U.S. adults believe there are unspoken rules about mobile technology usage—and 69 percent agree that violations are unacceptable. But what are the rules? When does "fun" cross into "gone too far"? I decided to ask experts for the lowdown.
According to Dan Ariely, author of The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Home and at Work (Harper), advances in technology have made seemingly benign behaviors—like my husband's aforementioned indecision—a problem. Ariely likens this to, of all things, doughnuts. "A long time ago in our evolutionary history, when we found sugar and fat, it made sense, survival-wise, to gobble up as much as we possibly could," he says. Technology changed the world faster than we evolved and those once-rare doughnuts are now cheap and widely available. What was once a survival mechanism is now a health hazard.
"We have the same problem with information," he says. Delaying decisions is smart, allowing you to consider options, seek advice, and fully understand criteria before committing. There was a time when gathering information was hard work. The effort required set a natural limit on pondering. Today, thanks to Google, limitless info is accessible with a few keystrokes. This can lead to an overwhelming desire to know more before making even simple choices.
Just as we have to intentionally stop eating doughnuts before we outgrow the couch, we have to short-circuit the instinct to swallow as much information as we can hold. "Start with a default decision," says Ariely. "Then set a deadline by which time you will choose an alternative or go with the default." So in the case of my husband's dinner dilemma, he might say that morning, "If I don't have a better idea by noon, we'll meet at Bonefish Grill at 8 p.m." That way, he can appear decisive while giving himself the option to research alternatives.
The Digital Leash
It isn't just information we're gorging on. We're also snacking constantly, like freeloaders at an all-you-can-eat buffet, on personal digital relationships. All of this cyber-nourishment has a dark side.
On a recent vacation, my family Twittered, Facebooked, texted, and blogged our way through an eight-hour drive to the mountains. We were all having fun and connecting—just not with the other people in the car. When we finally arrived we discovered there was no cell signal. Panic set in. My teenage son railed against nature while envisioning his social life unraveling. His father lamented, "I have to work!" Me, I calmly decided to go for a walk—hoping I might find a signal. The uncomfortable feeling that we were missing out on something important overtook our intentions to enjoy downtime together.
I was a half-mile into my stroll before I wondered, Is there some reason I can't just go offline?
There's something seductive about being constantly connected, says cultural anthropologist Genevieve Bell, director of user experience at Intel's Digital Home Group. "In Western culture we are measured by the value of our network." A cell phone is a leash, tethering us to that network. The slight jolt that comes with a new text or e-mail reminds us we are connected to something bigger than ourselves and gives us a little thrill that we crave in its absence.
Dropping the leash is good for the soul, though. Humans function better when they occasionally disconnect, says Bell. "Every major religion has some sort of built-in break—Saturdays, Sundays, every few hours, a week each year. There is some time when you are supposed to stop and focus on God."
I pocketed my phone and enjoyed the view of the mountains. When I got back to the cabin, my family was sitting on the deck, admiring the snow that had just started falling. We had come here to have fun together, not poke at gadgets. So we went skiing, sledding, and had a snowball fight. Sure, we had to occasionally curb the urge to check phones that weren't connected to anything anyway. Three days later, even though we knew the cabin was completely off the grid, we all agreed to make this an annual thing.
TMI (Too Much Info)
According to Steven Petrow, a nationally syndicated etiquette columnist, technology keeps moving the thin line between public and private, leaving people unsure of the difference. I agree wholeheartedly, having suffered through multiple conversations with a friend who seems to think I won't notice if he goes to the bathroom while we're chatting. Unfortunately, he's not alone in this delusion. According to an Intel study, 75 percent of people believe it's okay to bring phones and laptops into public restrooms. "Just because people think something is okay does not make it so," says Anna Post, great-great-granddaughter of manners muse Emily Post and author of Do I Have to Wear White? (William Morrow).
When you add social media to the mix, boundaries get even blurrier. My buddy Alison, who asked that I withhold her last name to protect the guilty, has been shocked by things she has witnessed. "One of my Facebook friends posted before-and-after photos of her bunion surgery," she says. "I wish I had never seen those." Alison unfriended this person to avoid future too-graphic posts, but still. Outside of her realm, things are worse. According to a study by electronics shopping site Retrevo.com, 36 percent of respondents said they post to Twitter immediately after sex—about the act or their partner!
Advises Petrow: Remind yourself that anything you share could get reposted in other people's networks and spread like wildfire.
The Here and Now
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.
R U Ready?
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.
3 Quick Ways to Tame the Tech Beast
1. Turn off your phone from time to time. (See? Simple!) For instance, making a point of doing so when you sit down to a meal lets your companions know they have your full attention.
2. If you can't bring yourself to use the off switch, sign up for your carrier's usage-controls service (prices vary but are usually somewhere around $5 a month). Designate specific block-out times for, say, dinner or bedtime.
3. If you feel that friends or coworkers expect you to be connected at all times, use your Facebook status or e-mail vacation responder to announce that you are offline. Managing other people's expectations (meaning, that they should not expect to hear from you instantly) can give you a guilt-free breather.
Originally published in the April 1, 2011, issue of Family Circle magazine.