Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The social cost of technology

This is my column today.

When people talk about how technology is reshaping the world and the way we live, the discussion most often centers on how technology has dramatically obliterated barriers of time and space. People talk about how technology has enabled us to communicate faster, process volumes of information quicker, even store, retrieve, and forward data in far more convenient ways than ever before.

The impact of technology on people and social structures is often glossed over.

For example, the emergence of e-mails and the widespread use of the Internet have spawned relational concepts such as e-mail etiquette and netizenship. Although most people have overcome the learning curve on appropriate use of emails, there are still those who annoy everyone else by continuing to forward all kinds of scams and chain e-mails, or using upper case letters, or generally displaying the virtual equivalent of boorish behavior.

One of my professional e-mail groups is both virtually and literally dead after it became victimized by flamebaiters who hijacked the forum and succeeded in sowing discord among its members. To this day, many members of the forum still havent been able to comprehend exactly what happened or have been able to accept that there are indeed many people in this world who use the Internet as outlet for their neurosis.

Technology will continue to redefine the way people relate and interact with each other and pave the way for even more complications. Thus, there is now a whole taxonomy of online behaviors complete with the appropriate labels and descriptions, from cyberbullying, to phishing, to flamebaiting, to trolling, etc.

New technology also gives way to hybrid behaviors, which require new rules and new theories. It has been argued that there shouldnt be any differences in the way people relate to each other whether in person or online; that technology is simply a tool that we bend and adjust according to our needs and preferences. But like all other ideals, this is easier said than done. The reality is that technology is pushing the frontiers of ethics, ethical behavior, and even simple good manners and were really inventing the rules as we move along. There are no ready manuals to govern our conduct.

For example, one of the more contentious issues that people are still grappling with is the issue of privacy when using technology such as emails, the Internet, and even in social networking sites. Some companies have put in place what seem like comprehensive policies that seek to provide guidelines on employees use of company-sponsored technology. But even the most ironclad guidelines cannot legislate behavior and are therefore puny to the complexities of the human condition.

Theoretically, employees are not supposed to use company email or Internet facilities for personal purposes. However, the line that separate personal and business has always been inchoate. Everyone knows that everyone else uses company email and Internet facilities for personal purposes although admittedly in varying degrees and levels.

Is it okay for companies to use information and data culled from an employee's email account for disciplinary procedures against the employee? Can companies pick information from an employee's or for that matter, a job applicant's social networking site and use it in the employee discipline or in screening processes? Is it ethical to do so?

As someone whose day job includes screening candidates for certain critical positions in the bank that I work for, I have certain reservations about using information on an employees or candidates Friendster or Facebook accounts for employment purposes. But I am aware that these sites are considered public domain. So theoretically, any information including the state of ones current emotional entanglement can be used for or against him or her.

One celebrated case involved an employee (not in the Philippines, though) who was fired from her job allegedly because she was caught logged on to and updating her Facebook account on days when she was supposed to be home sick. The company insisted that she feigned sickness and used her Facebook account history as proof. The employee sought redress in court and the whole thing is now one of those management cases dissected in various human resource management fora.

The growing popularity of BlackBerries and cellular phones that allow people to access the Internet anywhere has now added further complication. A Reuters report written by Ellen Wulfhorst and released last week narrated how a political coup in New York statehouse was instigated by billionaire businessman Tom Golisano because he was peeved that Democratic majority leader Malcolm Smith paid more attention to his BlackBerry than to him during a meeting. An entry in a blog summed up the moral of the story thus: One should not play with ones BlackBerry when billionaires who have helped elect you have traveled to your office to talk to you. Of course it is possible that the billionaire in question simply had another bad day more than he could handle.

However, the whole fracas illustrated just how hand-held devices are getting in the way of relationships and productive work; or to be more specific, how technology is redefining the norms of proper conduct. The Reuters report cited one study where a third of more than 5,000 respondents said they often check their e-mails during meetings and yet another study that showed nearly a fifth of respondents said they had been reprimanded for showing bad manners with a wireless device. Totally believable when we consider just how many among us couldnt resist sending and receiving text messages, answering a call, or even downloading emails through BlackBerries or cellphones even when in the middle of important meetings or events. Why, many among us cannot even resist not answering cellphones in church.

The Reuters report also provided a counter-argument against the much vaunted benefits and advantages of technology offered by hand-held devices. For example it shot down the myth of multi-tasking (can take more time and result in more errors than focusing on a single task at a time). When we come to think about it, its a little ironic that many experts are now saying that certain technological gadgets impede rather help companies attain optimum productivity when these gadgets were designed primarily as productivity tools.

But like I said, we're not even talking about the so-called soft issues yet the social costs associated with technology. Are people guilty of bad manners now in short, more rude and inconsiderate or have the rules of etiquette been redefined to adjust to the demands of new technology? The debate is just starting to heat up.

2 comments:

Contents under pressue said...

As a proud owner of a DS and iPod, I have one very simple rule: if somebody wants to ask me something in person, and look me in the eye while doing so, that is my cue to stop whatever I'm doing, save my game, put the gadget away, and listen.

Of course I ask for a moment to put away my device.

I wouldn't know for the life of me why not too many people can seem to follow this rule.

As for the matter of E-groups. Simple rule here too: Don't feed the trolls.

Anonymous said...

Hi Bongster! I actually wanted to unsubscribe myself na to that egroup that you were talking about. Aside from the fact that its almost virtually dead, I don't even know who those people are ( I am referring to those people who "took over/ambushed" the forum and how their names doesn't even ring a bell). Which made me doubt on the credibility and reliability of their opinions and advices.

jt