THR Blog   /   January 24, 2014

Compared to What?

Chad Wellmon

(credit: iStock)

Rutgers University professor Keith Hampton, profiled in a recent New York Times Magazine article,  challenges the claims of fellow social scientists such as MIT's Sherry Turkle that digital technologies are driving us apart:

Hampton found that, rather than isolating people, technology made them more connected. “It turns out the wired folk — they recognized like three times as many of their neighbors when asked,” Hampton said. Not only that, he said, they spoke with neighbors on the phone five times as often and attended more community events. Altogether, they were much more successful at addressing local problems, like speeding cars and a small spate of burglaries. They also used their Listserv to coordinate offline events, even sign-ups for a bowling league. Hampton was one of the first scholars to marshal evidence that the web might make people less atomized rather than more. Not only were people not opting out of bowling leagues — Robert Putnam’s famous metric for community engagement — for more screen time; they were also using their computers to opt in.

For Hampton, what debates and research about the effects of digital technologies on our lives so often lack is historical perspective.

We’re really bad at looking back in time,” Hampton said, speaking of his fellow sociologists. “You overly idealize the past. It happens today when we talk about technology. We say: ‘Oh, technology, making us isolated. We’re disengaged.’ Compared to what? You know, this kind of idealized notion of what community and social interactions were like.” He crudely summarized his former M.I.T. colleague Sherry Turkle’s book “Alone Together.” “She said: ‘You know, today, people standing at a train station, they’re all talking on their cellphones. Public spaces aren’t communal anymore. No one interacts in public spaces.’ I’m like: ‘How do you know that? We don’t know that. Compared to what? Like, three years ago?’

Although the merits of Hampton's particular study can be debated, he makes an important point when he asks simply, "compared to what?" Those who make arguments about technology's deleterious effects on our ability to converse with one another, to pay attention, or to read closely usually presume some way that we ought to talk to each other, that we ought to attend to a given object or event, or that we ought to read.

And maybe these critics are right; perhaps we ought carry on in the ways they presume we should. But appealing to history to make these normative claims is a much trickier move.  History is fraught and full of bad conversation, distraction, and poor readers.