The Irony of Social Networking Technology


There were two back-to-back articles in yesterday's Science Times that provided ... probably unintentionally ... bookend perspectives on the pros and cons of social networking technology. In the first, anthropologist Pauline Wiessner discusses how strong social networks, particularly with distant relatives and tribal members, helped the !Kung tribespeople in South Africa's Kalahari Desert survive hard times. When food got scarce, the !Kung would start to tell fond stories of their distant relatives. Basking in the memories of those stories, they'd craft presents for their distant friends and relatives. And then, if things didn't improve, they'd deliver those presents--in person--and stay with their distant friends until times got better.

Wiessner believes that those networks didn't just allow tribes to survive. She thinks it may account for how humans were able to move out of Africa into Eurasia and Australia so quickly, 45,000 years ago ... a move that researchers think transpired over a mere 5,000 years. (Five thousand years may not sound very quick, but in the overall scheme of things, it was a pretty zippy pace.) Much as explorers, mountain climbers, or advancing armies rely on supply trains and camps to support their forays into new territory, Wiessner believes the Africans relied on ties with an evolving string of communities behind them to enable their new explorations north and eastward.

So how does this relate to new social networking technology? Two ways.

First, Wiessner notes, the !Kung are now far more limited in their ability to move around to survive hard times. But she tells of how some of them figured out how to use a satellite phone to contact Wiessner in Utah to ask her to buy sneakers another westerner had promised them, and bring them with her on her next trip to Africa. Wiessner points to the story as an example of how modern technology has helped an ancient people adapt an age-old concept to assist their survival in the modern world. "By accessing this satellite phone and devising the complex strategy to get the shoes, they'd extended the range of their support network from 200 to 15,000 kiometers," she explains.

But Wiessner also points to Facebook as a modern-day version of those old !Kung social networks. "People who use it way it keeps memories of distant friends alive, and it sometimes brings long-lost relationships back home," she says. "The videos and snapshots that people post echo the exchange gifts of the !Kung." And, she notes, "one constantly hears stories of people finding jobs and business opportunities through these sites."

So on the one hand ... satellite phones, wireless technology, and internet social networking sites not only help us to survive hard times, but also can even help ancient tribes adapt to a changing modern world. Terrific!

But on the other side of that same page in the Science section was an article headlined, "Texting May Be Taking a Toll." In this second article, Katie Hafner looks at the potential medical and developmental problems teens may suffer as a result of over-texting. (Sending and receiving hundreds of texts a day is apparently not uncommon for many teenagers.)

Potential problems range from injured thumbs to decreased autonomy, sleep deprivation, and interference in a teenager's ability to develop complex thoughts or figure out who they want to be. But what intrigued me most was a teenager's complaint that she was being scolded for being addicted to texting by a mother who was equally addicted to cell phone use.  "Teenagers," the article notes, "still need their parents' undivided attention." And cell phones--on both ends--get in the way.

So. What do we make of that? Is all this technology helpful? Or hurtful?

Answer: Yes.

In his book American Genesis, Thomas Hughes talks about technology expressing "long-held human values and aspirations" and being both a shaper of, and shaped by, values. We clearly value social networks; they may even have been the supply chain that enabled our species' rapid expansion across the continents. As a result, we create technology and systems to enhance those networks. The trick, as in the tale of the sorcerer's apprentice, is to keep the magic broom from getting out of control.

It's not a new problem. Technology often creates new problems, even as it solves old ones. The advent of computerized flight management systems in airline cockpits, for example, was supposed to relieve the workload and improve safety. While the new technology achieved that goal overall, having to program the systems created a new problem of pilots being "heads down and locked" -- or, concentrating on programming the computer to the detriment of overall safety awareness. (see: American Airlines' 1995 crash in Cali, Columbia). As a result, new training and procedures had to be developed to counter the safety problems the new technology had unintentionally spawned.

Unfortunately, it's harder to train humans how to use cell phones and internet-based social networks for all the advantages they offer without letting the technology get in the way of the very thing it was supposed to assist. Balanced use is a challenge with any new technology, and we don't always do such a terrific job of achieving it.

No easy answers to that one. Just an interesting and ... ironically enough, unintended ... juxtaposition of both sides of a technological sword.

(Image by Flickr user MarkKelley)