Monday, October 29, 2007

Lost in the crowd

I've just been catching up with my various chums' blogs and came across a plaintive cry from Mad Woman.

'As I sit here at my computer, television switched off, music playing', she writes, 'I can't help but muse. A number of conversation windows are open upon my screen, which force me to think - what on earth is happening to me? I mean, how is it with this medium of instant messaging I can chat, joke, feel affection, give and receive emotion and yet I am basically typing on my own with perhaps a one inch picture of the recipient of my ramblings to gaze at?' She then goes on to say that 'when I meet the people with whom I can connect so readily over email and instant messaging ... what will happen? Via computers I connect completely and spiritually - will I be able to recreate that honesty face to face? Am I losing the ability to be able to do that with the person themselves? Will I become less capable of openness in real life ? Is this how automation begins? Just add hot water lunches. Instant fame from Simon Cowell. Instant wealth from the Lottery. Has reality got a count down clock?'

She has a point there.

Someone recently suggested that the i in i-pod stands for isolation. They were making the point that they travelled to work every day in a crowded train carriage in which no one talks to each other. Most people sit nodding their heads to the hissing bomp-bomp-bomp from their MP3 players. And those who do hold a conversation do it remotely via their mobile phones, laptops and blackberries. So are we, as Mad Woman suggests, losing our capacity for face-to-face interaction?

In Desmond Morris's groundbreaking 1969 book The Human Zoo (the follow-up to his equally astounding The Naked Ape), he explores the nature of human civilisation and the effect that this has had on us poor upright primates. He compares the human inhabitants of a city to the animal inhabitants of a zoo. Both have their needs provided for - we don't need to worry about finding shelter or food, for example. But our environment is unnatural. Just a few thousand years ago, we roamed across vast territories. Now we live in small boxes packed tightly in among other small boxes and wonder why we feel suffocated and isolated. We find ourselves with free time on our hands. Both we and zoo animals have developed the capacity for boredom and self-pity. It really is possible to feel lonely among a population of millions.

We'v been around for about a million years but civilisation has only turned up in the last 3000. That's a very short time to adapt to the change in lifestyle. Evolution works at a snail's pace so, biologically, we are still pretty much identical to our remote ancestors. If we found a Stone Age Homo Sapiens and defrosted him/her, there is no reason why they couldn't be educated the same way that we are. They could drive a car, work a computer and be trained to build complex machinery. Society is changing at a pace that evolution cannot keep up with. So is it any wonder that increasing numbers of people seem to have problems developing healthy social relationships?

Bizarrely, improvements in communications technology seem to have made matters worse. I have a close relative - I won't say who - whose preferred method of conversing with their friends is text messaging. When I suggested that they could communicate 10 times as much information in 1/1oth of the time it takes to thumb their way through writing a text, I was told that they feel uncomfortable talking to their friends about some subjects. Somehow, the bleak digital text allows them a freedom that voice does not. The phone becomes a third party; someone to pass on the message. And because texting involves stripping a message back to bare facts, all hint of emotion is removed. Text messaging allows them to hide what they're really feeling and thinking.

Telephones do the same, albeit to a lesser degree. By removing the visual dimension of communication we are left purely with sound. So it is possible to lie and cheat and deceive much more easily by phone (and even easier by text). Human communication is 20% verbal and 80% non-verbal. How much of the message are we missing because of this technology?

And we're not learning to communicate while we are children either. A 2005 study by Washington-based Frederick Zimmerman and Dr Dimitri Christakis of the Child Health Institute went some way towards proving the idea that TV - any TV - is bad for the development of children's communication skills under the age of three. Their analysis was based upon mothers' responses to a national survey for 1,800 children. Children younger than three watched an average of 2.2 hours of television a day; the daily average increased to 3.3 hours for children between 3 and 5. For each hour of television watched per day before age three, a child's reading comprehension and short-term memory scores fell at age six and seven.

The study also points out, as a number of studies have done so before, that the 'natural' way for us to develop language skills is to recognise sounds consistently and reproduce them accurately. "The way (children) do that is to interact with adults and look at their faces, lips and mouths,"explains Zimmerman. In past times, a child would spend the first three years of its life travelling around with its mother, learning from their interactions with her and also from the interactions she had with others. Replacing this with television does not teach the same skills. There is little or no interaction. "Watching even really good educational shows ... is bad for children under three", claims Zimmerman. "Educational shows, such as Blue's Clues and Sesame Street are designed for older children who have already mastered the basics of language."

The UK-based Literary Trust makes some interesting observations too:

'There is no single factor that appears to be the main reason for the perceived decline in children’s language and communication skills. Researching the details of life for young babies is not an easy task. Nobody is going to deny them any natural stimulation in order to assess the problems that might be caused; so much of what we hear is anecdotal or conjecture. Are dummies used more now than they ever used to be, or for longer? What kind of impact does the popular family weekend activity of going to the shopping centre have on the youngest family member, strapped for so long in a buggy? And what about those buggies, which face away from the pusher – unlike big old-fashioned prams with seats at the front, or cumbersome (but sociable) push chairs?'

'The problems may be caused by parents expecting that children will pick up the ability to talk because chatter is all around them, without realising that babies need the opportunity to babble and be heard in an interactive way. When homes were quieter, the baby’s babbles might have been heard more easily. Perhaps we should also blame central heating in homes, a comfort in every other way, for encouraging family members to disperse to their own space to do their own solitary activities, instead of staying in a single, warm family-based room, with everyone congregating together.'

Verbal communication is the method used by the vast majority of us to communicate. We use it to have our needs met, to indicate our likes and dislikes, to request information, to refute something, to socialise, as well as to establish and maintain relationships. The ability to communicate is the basis of social and emotional well-being.

Children who have difficulty communicating often go on to develop behavioural problems, mainly due to their frustration at not being able to express their needs, participate in social exchange and achieve in education. These children do not ‘grow out’ of their difficulties as education progresses. Research shows a consistently poor outcome for children who do not receive intervention for their difficulties.

Television is often blamed for the perceived deterioration of young children’s language and communication skills. Research points to growing television consumption world-wide and an increase in viewing with age. Children under one watch 22 minutes of video and 53 minutes of television per day; one-year-olds watch 40 minutes of video and 73 minutes of television; two-year-olds watch 67 minutes of video and 97 minutes of television . Children aged two-and-a-half to three view approximately 1.5 hours per day increasing to 2.5 hours by age three to six. There is a decline of about half-an-hour between age five-and-a-half and seven as children enter school. Parked in front of the TV for hours on end pre-schoolers absorb very little, especially if viewing general audience programmes like EastEnders – the most-watched programme among British four-year-olds. Watching TV eats into the time children have available to socialise and play – activities that are far more beneficial for developing language and communication skills. And research has shown that in many homes where television provides a constant background noise, adults get distracted from talking and listening to their children.

It may be that the kind of active, imaginative play that requires and leads to language input from the child is just not as regular in households as it used to be. Parents may have so many other noisy things to entertain them and their children that children are just not getting enough time to try out talking for themselves. Plus, the increasing use of technology to pass information, rather than our natural communicative abilities is stunting our ability to make ourselves understood.

Which is why it is possible to sit in front of a computer screen as I am now, talking to all of you faceless people out there without any of us truly having an indication of how we are all feeling. Am I sad? Happy? Confused? Horny? Irritated? Smug? Irate? And how about you? How do you feel? We're not making ourselves understood.

Sadly, we are in danger of losing something very precious. The very thing that separates us and elevates us above every other living species on this planet is our ability to communicate. As I pointed out in an earlier blog, it has allowed us to share knowledge and wisdom and to store it for the benefit of others. If we allow ourselves to become disconnected from each other; if we allow ourselves to become alienated and antisocial, we risk losing all that makes us human.

So, with that in mind, I'm going to log off now and go and have a chat with my family (Well, those that are still up).

You should do the same.

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