A couple of days ago we had a brief interesting conversation at the LINK Lab about people’s addiction to mobile devices in public spaces. You have probably heard this before: “people need to put down their cellphones at the restaurant (or other public spaces) and actually interact with the people around them.” For some, this is a clear cut case of people losing manners, but sometimes I wonder if it is so simple.

I think that the Clark/Kozma debate gives us some interesting insight into these conversations. I know that Clark’s point was more about instructional design, but it’s application can go beyond those limitations. When you really think about it, Clark’s point that “media are mere vehicles that deliver instruction but do not influence student achievement any more than the truck that delivers our groceries causes changes in our nutrition” also applies to communication in some ways, because we have to communicate to deliver instruction.

But what is the impact of communication? A recent Facebook discussion I was a part of centered around how people felt bad when they found out they had been defriended by someone. Many people in the conversation tried to say that this is just digital communication, that Facebook is just a website, that these things really aren’t real and don’t matter, and other points along those lines. But I disagreed. If someone was to come along and write a really nice, long compliment on your Facebook wall, you wouldn’t just ignore it and say its not real. You would feel pretty good about it. Therefore, since you would feel good about a digital compliment, its not wrong to feel bad when negative things happen digitally (and not to mention all of the studies that have found that cyber-bullying really hurts people in real life). You could probably therefore say that “media are mere vehicles that deliver communicative actions but do not influence the impact of those actions any more than the truck that delivers our groceries causes changes in our nutrition.” We assign importance or meaning to various forms of communication regardless of whether the communication is in person or digital.

But let’s go back to the “cellphone in the restaurant” issue. Is it really rude to look at your cellphone in public? I would say we have not yet socially constructed a standard for that, mainly because we don’t have a clear historical standard to tie into.

First of all, let’s talk about what people really do in restaurants. I waited tables for about 7 years in the 1990s (before smartphones for you young-uns out there). This idea that everyone was having great conversations around the table for every meal they ate out is a weird glamorization of the past, at best. I would say that on any given shift, maybe half the tables were engaged in conversation over a meal… on a good day. You would be surprised how many people sit in silence after ordering. Even more so after the meal comes.

Now then, think about what happens when you are eating at a restaurant and someone you know walks by your table. Do you ignore them because social convention says it is rude to not talk to the people at the table with you? What you probably do is stop the table conversation (if it is even happening) and greet your acquaintance. Maybe you make plans to talk later, or they ask you a quick question about a previous conversation. But when that type of communication opportunity arises, we usually don’t see it as rude to stop one conversation, engage in another, and then come back to the original. Does it make the situation any different just because those communication opportunities are digital instead of in person? Does the medium of communication change the social rules or keep them the same?

I’m not sure either way, to be honest. I would say that we don’t have a clear historical construct to guide us and we will be deciding this issue as we move forward. Does a text on the phone equal running into an acquaintance in person? Maybe or maybe not – I’m not sure. If my neighbor texts me that my house is on fire, I would place a pretty high importance on that text over any other conversation that is happening in person.

I am also reminded of how home phones relate to this issue. When I was a kid, before answering machines and telemarketers became a big thing, you would pretty much stop whatever was happening in your house and answer the phone. Then, of course, telemarketers came along and we started thinking twice. If you were busy, you would say “if it’s important, they will call back.” We all knew that if there wasn’t an answer but you needed to talk to someone, you would call back a minute later. Then we all got answering machines and were able to screen calls. But we would often stop conversations to hear who was on the answering machine.

So, in other words, we filtered communications that came to us to engage with the important ones and put the less important ones off until later. The media or timing of the communication didn’t matter – the importance we placed on it determined how we engaged with it. Think also about call waiting and the debate that people had about when it was appropriate to switch over and check the new call. There really wasn’t one standard that applied to every time that little beep happened while you were on the line.

So now that all kinds of communication media can follow us where ever we go – what rules of social etiquette apply? Do we treat texts / Tweets / Facebook notifications / etc like we would a situation where we running into someone we know in person… or do we treat digital avenues like second-class communications that must be ignored until the “right” time? What if there really is something life-changing in one of those tweets? Is there really any difference between you responding to a Facebook conversation and two people starting a side conversation in a larger group of people at the same table? Either way you have a smaller subsection of the larger group in a different conversation, so why is it okay if both of them are at the table but not okay when one of them is at the table and another is miles away?

I don’t have any definitive answers to these issues, but we need to think about what this issue tells us about our attitudes towards digital communications. If you automatically hate that people are on their phones in restaurants, does that mean that maybe you have relegated digital communications to a lesser status? Does that reveal a personal bias against digital communications on your part? Does a text or Tweet automatically make something less important, or should we look at the actual content of the communication as the important part?

Then there is, of course, the whole debate over whether constantly looking at our phones is causing more harm than good. If that is the case, then I have been in trouble since before there were even affordable home computers. I always had a book or comic or magazine with me to read when I was bored in line somewhere or stuck without anything to do. Does looking at skateboard articles on a phone make a distraction any different than reading through Thrasher magazine?

edugeek-journal-avatarWhen you really look at it, smartphones have just enabled us to do the same things we always did in the past, just in a smaller more portable format. Is our problem really with what people do with them or the devices themselves? I don’t think the answers are as simple as many make them out to be, but if receiving communication on a mobile device is so much different than face-to-face communication that we automatically relegate it to second-class communication, what does that say about online learning in general (which uses a lot of communication)? Nothing positive I would say. Or maybe is it time to take a more nuanced view at how we engage with mobile devices in public than “all bad” or “all okay.”

(image credit: Mirjana Novakovic, obtained from freeimages.com)

Matt Crosslin
Matt is currently the Learning Innovation Coordinator with the UT Arlington LINK Research Lab. His research focuses on Learning Theory, Innovation, and learner empowerment. Matt holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of North Texas, a Master of Education in Educational Technology from UT Brownsville, and a Bachelors of Science in Education from Baylor University. His research interests include instructional design, learning pathways, sociocultural theory, heutagogy, virtual reality, and open networked learning. He has a background in instructional design and teaching at both the secondary and university levels and has been an active blogger and conference presenter. He also enjoys networking and collaborative efforts involving faculty, students, administration, and anyone involved in the education process.

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