Class today started with a few administrative reminders, noting that Assignment 5 is due on Wednesday and final presentations will begin next week, with the schedule of speakers posted on the website.

The subject for today’s class was exploring how computers have affected the way we communicate with one another. To start, five scenarios were proposed, and the class had to indicate who they would share that information with, and via what method. The scenarios, and the general responses, were:

  • Car breaks down: the consensus was to call someone with a cell who could come and help, or in the event of a lack of reception to manually flag down a passing motorist (computer free, presumably).
  • You get a new job: this would be worthy of a Facebook status, and perhaps a call or email to friends and/or family.
  • You broke up with your significant other: talking to people in person, generally closer friends and family; however, texting someone to initiate this interaction was also mentioned. Notably absent: updating the Facebook “relationship” status.
  • You’re having a great day: some felt this was worthy of a Facebook status, others felt that it could come up naturally in conversation.
  • Mom’s (figurative) cancer in remission: close friends and family only, in person or over the phone (privacy here was a much greater concern).

Variation occurred due to individual personalities, as well as the response sought from the contacted parties. Generally, though, the more private the information the more private the modes of communication.

From here, we transitioned into a discussion of Turkle’s paper, regarding how technology has presented us with new social problems, as illustrated by the tech conference in which no one was paying attention to the speaker, and merely playing on their laptops or smartphones. Problems noted by the class:

  • Introduction of a general lack of attention span. People were more interested in their own email or something on the internet than the speaker of the conference that they had flown somewhere to attend.
  • Email in itself has made it so we expect response times to be much more rapid (minutes as opposed to days).
  • We now spend less face-to-face time with other humans. Initially, it was funny to text or IM someone you could just physically say something to, but the irony has since worn off; however, it still remains useful in the context of discussing or sharing something on the internet, or when talking out loud would be disruptive.
  • Animals are no longer real enough. This actually ended up being a subjective problem: seeing something in person seems to coincide with said person’s interest in whatever that thing is (e.g. turtles from the Galapagos to a 14 year-old vs. an evolutionary biologist).
  • Relentless consumption vs. thinking and introspection (i.e. passive vs. active brain activity). There is some need for a balance between the two (thinking is hard), but the internet and various other devices have made it perhaps dangerously easy to get lost in a sea of RSS feeds and never surface to actually “think” about anything.
  • Technology’s effect on kids. Sub-issues mentioned were technology fostering bad habits, perhaps actually altering mental development patterns (e.g. lack of attention span), and setting different boundaries and/or losing some independence (e.g. “growing up tethered”; if you have relied on a cell phone your entire life, what do you do when it dies/breaks/etc?).

This brought us to kids and powerpoint, and how both children and especially middle-school teachers have abused it to the point of losing the efficacy it was initially designed to provide. Generally, a good rulebook can be found here.

Our last topic was the “mind habits” computers seem to have imposed on us. Most of the discussion centered around social networking and instant communications apparatuses. Sites like Facebook and Twitter have made it far too easy to share even the most mundane of details from one’s daily life with everyone you have ever met, and to do so in the simplest way possible, thanks to character limits (I have little hope for the poor fellow who had to post pictures of his handwritten tweets on flickr when Twitter went down).

Another interesting topic was the internet as brain extension (another here). With so much information at our fingertips, it can be hard a) not to continually be searching for newer and newer information, and b) to remember any of the facts, in lieu of knowing only where to find them.

Finally, we concluded class with the topic of computers as a proxy for physical intimacy (i.e. being in contact with people when you’re actually alone), or even the concept of robot friends, including robotic pets and companions for the elderly. It seemed like no one felt the companionship was necessarily a bad thing, but people were a bit weirded out with the concept of giving affection to something that can only mimic reciprocation.