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American Today


Alumni Event  Examines Our Relationship with Technology

By Brooke Sabin

Linguistics professor discusses technology at a faculty down the road alumni event.

In her discussion of technology linguistics professor Naomi Baron notes the technology we use has "consequences for our interaction with one another." (Photo: Brooke Sabin)

Communicating on today’s technology has launched a wild ride for our relationships and self-images, says linguistics professor Naomi Baron. We careen from empowerment to dependency, from obsession to rejection, with some loneliness and even physical danger tossed in.

She discussed her research on the topic at a lively Faculty Down the Road alumni event held at the Rockville Hilton on November 10. The whiplash-inducing experience she described elicited nods and chuckles of recognition from the diverse alumni audience.

Cell phones, Facebook, Twitter, and the many other modern communications tools now rule our relationships and their use has consequences.

One by one, Baron described a common experience:

  • Control. We can determine how, when, and with whom we communicate. We can see who is calling, and block IMs and Facebook posts at will. We can text, rather than call, to avoid taking the time to talk. We can even use technology to avoid contact altogether. People have been known, Baron said, to pretend to talk on the phone to discourage others from engaging them.
  • Distraction. At best, it’s a seemingly benign lack of awareness of what’s happening around us. At worst, walking into a busy street or tripping over a curb while talking on a cell phone can end in a visit to the emergency room, according to a recent Association of Emergency Room Physicians statement.
  • Rejection. The increased social multitasking we all experience—such as talking on the phone while carrying on an IM conversation—can be risky to relationships. “People tend to get very unhappy if the person they are with is doing social multitasking,” Baron said. They feel left out or abandoned.

For her Fulbright work, in which she studied how undergraduates in five countries use cell phones, Baron saw conflicted feelings about technology emerge clearly. Many appreciated the fact that cell phones allowed them more control over their communications, yet they also used words such as bondage, oppression, intrusion, worry, and loneliness to describe their associations with the devices.

Baron’s presentation also touched on her new research that looks at preferences for reading on screen versus reading hard copy. Baron and her students collected data from AU undergraduates, with interesting results:

  • Responders overwhelmingly prefer to read most academic materials in hard copy.
  • Students are more likely to reread, and remember what they read, if they use hard copy.
  • Ninety percent of responders said that when they read on screen, they tend to multitask.

Baron offered a different perspective gleaned from the Amish community, which is concerned not just with the use of technology but with what kind of person you become when you use it.

“The technology we use has consequences,” she cautioned, “consequences for our interaction with one another and for our interaction with information and knowledge.”

Is it time to tame this ride?

This series, sponsored by the Office of Alumni Relations, brings star AU faculty to alumni, parents, and friends who live just down the road from AU, in northern Virginia and Maryland, for interactive lectures and networking opportunities.