March 31, 2014

It’s not the new things that are baffling, it’s what they’re called

By Jay Prag

[From the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin]

When the old (like me) meet the new, confusion often reigns.

But confusion is sometimes a simple matter of nomenclature. It isn’t necessarily new things that baffle some of us but rather it’s what they’re calling these new things.

A case in point is social media. This is the blanket term that has been applied to Facebook, Twitter and other Internet-based approaches to human interaction.

Here’s my problem: social media does not look very social to me. The next time you’re at a restaurant, look for a young couple out on a date. Nine times out of 10, they are looking at a smartphone rather than at each other. They are texting, Tweeting, Facebooking and otherwise being completely unsocial to the person across the table.

I understand that the social part of social media is the way you can connect to many people at one time, but the social should, I think, start with the actual physical person you are with. Posting on Facebook that you’re out with that gorgeous guy from the apartment next door seems like putting the cart before the horse. You’re not really out with him until you get off Facebook and talk to him! So I might call these digital interfaces “differently social media.”

Aside from wanting to push back against these so-called innovations, I think we need to consider what we’ve gained and what we’ve lost when we impose these things on our lives. If you want to reach the masses under the age of 30 you don’t call the editor of your local newspaper; you tweet it or post it on Facebook. That’s fine, but that might also explain why that same crowd doesn’t always seem to know anything that’s going on in the world. You don’t have to read the daily newspaper to stay informed when social media can make you part of your own story.

Another term that bugs me is online education. Education is the process of communicating important concepts from the more learned to the less learned. Most classes have textbooks and other resources to aid in this process, but the actual education occurs when a good teacher engages directly with a curious-minded student. It is the confluence of all the visual and non-verbal cues social scientists tell us make for a good lesson. It is transformative and palpable. It isn’t going to be the same online.

I’ll admit to being a slow adapter; I don’t have a Facebook account and I don’t tweet. But I do have a cellphone. It’s an old flip phone. Students love to walk up to me and say “Jay, 1998 called and they want their cellphone back.” They want me to get a smartphone. That’s another problematic term.

Consider what modern technology gives as you consider what it takes away. Then remember, when a 22-year-old applicant for your company’s job opening appears to be a little awkward, she might well be meeting an actual human for the first time in her life.

Jay Prag is a finance professor at the Peter F. Drucker and Masatoshi Ito School of Management at Claremont Graduate University and serves as academic director for the school’s Executive Management Program.