Saturday, May 10, 2008

Brave New World, Part III: Instant Communication and Regulation Problems

(This is the third of three blog entries about possible cultural ramifications of growing up in the age of instant communications)

One upside of the instant communications (phone, texting, and Internet including email and instant messaging) is that it makes it easier for people who are experiencing emotional turmoil to obtain information and resources to help them, such as social support—from friends and family, even from strangers on the Internet through websites and chat rooms.

This instantaneous knowledge and support has a downside. Consider that when someone is angry or frustrated, it's almost too easy to vent those feelings:
Directly and privately to the person via email, texting, or phone;
Indirectly and privately by communicating with others about the person via email, texting, or phone;
Publicly, by posting the negative feelings via a website.

These rapid communications mean that people no longer have to "sit with" uncomfortable feelings: If we're annoyed by the service at a restaurant we can, with our web-enabled phone, rant about it on our blog or as a "reviewer" on a food website. If we're upset about a transaction with a friend, we can call most anyone to talk about it via our cell phone (and theirs), or send a long email about it. As soon as we have an uncomfortable emotions, instant communication technologies allow us interactive outlets to try to transform these negative feelings.

Before instant communications, people coped with life's emotional vicissitudes in a variety of ways:
• We talked to a friend or family member in person;
• We tried to distract ourselves with activities;
• We wrote, in a diary or in a letter to a friend, family member, or to the person who aroused the feelings in us, to vent or better understand our feelings;
• We thought about and reflected on our feelings, the events that precipitated them, and the effects of possible courses of action.

What these activities had in common is that they typically require some effort and sometimes some patience and ability to tolerate our feelings until we could transform them or act on them in a significant way—we had to find the people we wanted to talk to (no cell phones or pagers) and we might have had to wait until they were available to speak to us; we had to work a bit at distraction—leaving our homes or offices, or at least leaving our chairs (rather than districting ourselves with the internet on a computer always at hand). And thinking or writing about what had transpired gave us pause to reflect without acting on our feelings.

People can still cope in these ways, or with their modern communication equivalents; however, these newer modes of communication require significantly less effort and let's face it--why not go with the easier path? Moreover, the speed of our ability to express ourselves, and obtain a response, is much faster. This speed can be a good thing, minimizing the time that people experience discomfort without relief. But it also has a downside: People have less experience or practice managing their emotions without acting on them rapidly. Unfortunately, the instant aspect of these communications seems to discourage deep reflection and encourages immediate reaction, leading instead to simple venting or "look at me" type communications—profile updates and photos, comments on blogs or websites, and youtube videos—that are less an attempt to share considered, reflective thoughts and images.

For each of us, these new technologies can become, in essence, extensions of ourselves that help us regulate their emotions. Feeling blue? We can shop (or window shop) online, communicate with friends, find solace and support in a chat room, post a comment on a website. Angry? Vent your anger in a call, email or post (in which you can be anonymous).

We've become used to acting quickly in response to uncomfortable feelings; we've become less adept at being able to manage or regulate our feelings without acting. Then, in cases where instant communication fails us (either technologically or emotionally—because our feelings are so powerful or the instant communications don't work sufficiently), we are less able to tolerate or regulate the uncomfortable feelings. And when we're emotionally aroused, we become jangled and less able to reason and use to use our good sense. The combination of being used to acting instantly, in combination with being less able to reason things through, lead us to be more likely to act impulsively, without thought for the long term consequences.

Are my speculations in this three-part missive merely the typical grumbling of someone from an "older generation" complaining about the change arising in with the times and affecting newer generations? I don't think so. Neuroscience research has accumulated to the point were we know that brain development is affected by the patterns in our emotions, thoughts, and behavior. The new instant communications now available are influencing the ways that our brains develop--particularly younger generations who grew—or are growing--up with the new technologies during formative years. We just don't yet know the specific ways that brains and behavior are being affected.

We can't unplug the internet, nor should we. I just think that we should try to anticipate the unintended but predictable consequences, some of which I've laid out, and then try to prepare for their negative effects—a less reflective, more action-oriented (and perhaps impulsive) populace, with a greater desire to be seen and heard than previous generations, who have at their disposal an ever-increasing smorgasbord of ways to obtain attention.

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