January 20, 2014

HAVING FIXED THE BROKEN WINDOWS:

Technology Is Not Driving Us Apart After All (MARK OPPENHEIMER, JAN. 17, 2014, NY Times Magazine)

First off, mobile-phone use, which Hampton defined to include texting and using apps, was much lower than he expected. On the steps of the Met, only 3 percent of adults captured in all the samples were on their phones. It was highest at the northwest corner of Bryant Park, where the figure was 10 percent. More important, according to Hampton, was the fact that mobile-phone users tended to be alone, not in groups. People on the phone were not ignoring lunch partners or interrupting strolls with their lovers; rather, phone use seemed to be a way to pass the time while waiting to meet up with someone, or unwinding during a solo lunch break. Of course, there's still the psychic toll, which we all know, of feeling tethered to your phone -- even while relaxing at the park. But that's a personal cost. From what Hampton could tell, the phones weren't nearly as hard on our relationships as many suspect.

When I met Hampton, he proved this point by gesturing around us, at our fellow diners at the Bryant Park Grill, where we were eating on a beautiful summer day, and at the hundreds of others beyond us in the park, enjoying the sun at tables, in chairs and on the lawn beyond us. "In the busiest public spaces, where there are a lot of groups, like this kind of public space, it's like 3 percent," he said. "Three percent. I can't even see someone on a cellphone right now, but yet how many times have you seen a story that says, 'People on cellphones in public spaces is rude, it's creating all sorts of problems, people are walking into traffic.' I mean, we really have a strong sense that it's everywhere."

Hampton's project offers an explanation for that misperception. It turns out that people like hanging out in public more than they used to, and those who most like hanging out are people using their phones. On the steps of the Met, "loiterers" -- those present in at least two consecutive film samples, inhabiting the same area for 15 seconds or more -- constituted 7 percent of the total (that is to say, the other 93 percent were just passing through). That was a 57 percent increase from 30 years earlier. And those using mobile phones there were five times as likely to "loiter" as other people. In other words, not that many people are talking, or reading, texting or playing Candy Crush on the phone, but those who do stick around longer. (In the case of Bryant Park, it doesn't hurt that the area is no longer an open-air drug market -- a major problem that P.P.S. was trying to root out in the '80s.)

According to Hampton, our tendency to interact with others in public has, if anything, improved since the '70s. The P.P.S. films showed that in 1979 about 32 percent of those visited the steps of the Met were alone; in 2010, only 24 percent were alone in the same spot. When I mentioned these results to Sherry Turkle, she said that Hampton could be right about these specific public spaces, but that technology may still have corrosive effects in the home: what it does to families at the dinner table, or in the den. Rich Ling, a mobile-phone researcher in Denmark, also noted the limitations of Hampton's sample. "He was capturing the middle of the business day," said Ling, who generally admires Hampton's work. For businesspeople, "there might be a quick check, do I have an email or a text message, then get on with life." Fourteen-year-olds might be an entirely different story.

Philadelphia was the only location of the four where Hampton found more people by themselves than the P.P.S. films did. But Hampton claims the effect was offset by something more profound: The apparent uptick could be explained in part by an increase in the number of women on the street, many of them alone.

In fact, this was Hampton's most surprising finding: Today there are just a lot more women in public, proportional to men. It's not just on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia. On the steps of the Met, the proportion of women increased by 33 percent, and in Bryant Park by 18 percent. The only place women decreased proportionally was in Boston's Downtown Crossing -- a major shopping area. "The decline of women within this setting could be interpreted as a shift in gender roles," Hampton writes. Men seem to be "taking on an activity that was traditionally regarded as feminine."


Posted by at January 20, 2014 7:19 PM
  
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