When Forbes magazine’s Managing Editor Dennis Kneale recently took on a challenge to ditch his BlackBerry, email and mobile phone for a week, he was eventually reduced to tears. The experiment, which aired on US broadcaster NBC’s Today show in a segment called Could you do without?, is testament of the techno-addiction to which very few of us are immune, say commentators.
Thanks to super-connectivity and all-invasive communication devices, technology today allows us to be in touch, wherever we are, no matter what time. But our increasing dependence on them could ruin relationships and spell the end of good old human interaction, experts are claiming.
Psychology professor Dr Annie Crookes believes a lot of social interaction has been lost because people don’t talk as much anymore.
“Talking is not just about the words but eye contact and expression, which you can’t express over the internet,” says the senior lecturer at Middlesex University in Dubai.
“Working all hours can put a strain on a relationship because there is little time to spend with a partner. Work can often be like a third party in your relationship, interrupting you, sitting at the table during dinner, constantly calling at the weekend. Some people feel guilty if they don’t answer their phone at the weekend and therefore continue with work, but this can cause lack of sleep, which could result in lack of productivity in the office,” adds Dr Crookes.
According to Research in Motion (RIM), the Canadian wireless device company that developed the BlackBerry, an excess of 20 million devices have been sold to more than 12 million subscribers around the world to date. Due to its infamously addictive nature, the device also inspired the term “Crackberry”, which became so widespread that in 2006, the Webster’s New World College Dictionary decided to call it the New Word of the Year.
But the ubiquitous BlackBerry is not the only one to be blamed. The success of social networking sites is also encouraging many of us to type and text instead of attempting to make one-on-one conversations.
The latest numbers available on Facebook reveal more than 67 million active users with an average 250,000 new registrations per day since January 2007. The hugely successful networking site is already available in Spanish and German, with French-enabled content to follow soon.
Alison White, 32, a senior account executive for a UAE-based PR company says she finds it hard to switch off from work – something her husband is finding increasingly hard to deal with.
“When I leave the office I don’t leave work behind. Before I get home my phone rings, the BlackBerry beeps with incoming emails and then when I get home, I log on to Facebook to check messages from friends,” she says.
“My husband gets annoyed because I have my phone on all the time even when I go on holiday. But when you are in a high-profile job you have to be available all time.”
In their third Email Addiction survey conducted last year, American internet service provider AOL found that more and more people in the US are using portable devices to access email round the clock. Of the 4,025 respondents surveyed across 20 cities in the country, 83 per cent said they checked their emails on vacation with many admitting that they plan their getaways around availability of internet access.
While the average email user checks mail about five times a day, 59 per cent of those with portable devices use them to check email every time a new message arrives, the study revealed.
In another survey conducted last year by Salary.com, a company which calls itself compensation experts, most workers in the US said they waste about 20 per cent of their working day, with 34 per cent blaming it on the internet and another 20 per cent on socialising with colleagues.
Although there has been no official studies in the UAE, a Workplace Survey conducted by Harris Interactive and promoted by Pfizer revealed that 31 per cent of employees in the Emirates said that they are less productive in the workplace owing to their smoking habits, which requires them to step out of the office for a cigarette.
Some, however, say technology is a great way to enhance human interaction. According to professor Richard Coyne from the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland, emails are a good supplement to face-to-face conversation.
“We talk just as much as before, but about different things. In a work context, we often say ‘send me an email about it’, which closes off the topic and then we can talk about other things,” he says.
“For topics that need it, we will talk face-to-face. If I’ve not managed to talk with someone on the phone, email acts as a substitute, perhaps inadequately, but if I’m travelling it’s convenient.”
Connectivity and accessibility also means people can be more productive, according to a Cisco official. “For users with access to 24-hours communication their productivity gains more than 40 minutes a day. Workers who have voice, video and data services that support communication as well as wireless technology are equipped to work outside the office and are likely to be more productive,” he says.
Get talking again
Whether you are failing to talk to people enough at home or in the office, these tips could help set you free and get back in touch:
- If you have a query for someone in the office, don’t send an email. Get up and go and speak to them in person.
- Set aside time once a week when you and your spouse turn your phones off to do something together.
- Instead of sending multiple emails about the same subject, pick up the phone and talk it over – it could save you a lot of time and effort.
- Take a break – not only will it help you clear your head, but having lunch with colleagues or friends will provide you an opportunity to discuss non-work issues, which is great for diversion.
- Plan your time so you don’t have to take home work you should have done in office.
- Rather than trying to do everything via email, set up meetings so everyone can discuss issues together.
- Make meal times at home an opportunity to catch up with your family. Volunteer to set the table, so you don’t end up crowding on the sofa around the television.