Disconnected in the Age of Ambient Awareness

Oct 04, 2008 • Culture, Lifestyle, Technology

Steven Porricelli has never thrown his wife’s laptop out the window, but he’s wanted to.

“Technology is a necessary evil,” he told LifeWire in an interview about his wife, Jane, founder of MomGenerations.com. “She’s always texting in one hand and Twittering (an online social network and messaging service) on the other. I’ve woken up before and she’ll be zonked out in bed with the laptop on her lap. It’s insane.”

My husband can relate — and he’s not the only one.

“She grabbed my iPhone out of my hand, threw it on the ground and actually stomped on it,” my friend Peter told me in a recent conversation about why he’d broken up with his latest object of affection. “It’s too bad because the phone was OK and I really liked her, but, you know, on principle. I mean, WTF? Who stomps on stuff past the age of four?”

When I asked him how long she’d been trying to get his attention, he grudgingly admitted he didn’t know.


They don’t call them CrackBerries for nothing. In mid-2007, the Guardian reported on a survey conducted by AOL and Opinion Research of 4,025 Americans over 13 years of age, which found that six out of 10 people use their mobile e-mail gadgets in bed and at least four reply to messages in the middle of the night.

In March, Brian Alexander, who writes the Sexploration column for MSNBC.com, followed up on the trend: as of March, 25 million Americans use a smart phone like the BlackBerry or Treo and 68 percent of Americans say they feel anxiety when they’re disconnected from the web. Alexander points to a study by Sleep Council, a UK-based bed industry group which found eight of 10 people are playing with their high-tech gadgets before bedtime and one in three sends or receives text messages or e-mails while in bed.

A more recent study from Sheraton Hotels found that about 87 percent of users take their gadgets into the bedroom, 84 percent check them just before going to bed and as soon as they wake up, and at least 85 percent say they look for messages in the middle of the night.


A piece by Clive Thompson in The New York Times magazine summarized the growing popularity of online interaction as a reaction to modern social isolation.

“The mobile workforce requires people to travel more frequently for work, leaving friends and family behind,” Thompson writes. “Psychologists and sociologists spent years wondering how humanity would adjust to the anonymity of life in the city, the wrenching upheavals of mobile immigrant labor—a world of lonely people ripped from their social ties.”

This is how. Social scientists call our incessant online contact “ambient awareness.” “It is, they say, very much like being physically near someone and picking up on his mood through the little things he does—body language, sighs, stray comments—out of the corner of your eye,” Thompson writes.

“It’s an aggregate phenomenon,” Marc Davis, a chief scientist at Yahoo and former professor of information science at the University of California at Berkeley, told [Thompson]. “No message is the single-most-important message. It’s sort of like when you’re sitting with someone and you look over and they smile at you. You’re sitting here reading the paper, and you’re doing your side-by-side thing, and you just sort of let people know you’re aware of them.”

But is it just helping us stay connected or is it completely changing the expectations we have of our interaction? I think therefore I am, right — but is a thought not really a thought unless it’s a tweet?

Is living the thrill of a relationship without an audience no longer enough? Who can forget Heartbreak Soup or Jakob and Julia? I am continuously haunted by a tweet by former Valleywag writer, Melissa Gira Grant: “Uneasy truth: this relationship makes more sense with an audience. It’s when we’re most honest?”

Is talking to a single person at a time no longer enough, do we need the continuous bombardment of data from all corners of the world? The Sheraton study mentioned in the section above found that more than a third of those surveyed said that if they were forced to make a choice between their partners and their PDA (“personal digital assistant”), they’d keep their gadget.


“I can’t decide what’s harder, being in a relationship with someone who’s as obsessively online as you, or being in a relationship with someone who isn’t connected at all, or only minimally,” I say to my friend Atherton during one of our daily exchanges.

“I’d say being in a relationship with someone who isn’t in connected at all or minimally,” he responds, “because they don’t understand the anxiety one experiences when they’re disconnected.”

He’s right about the anxiety. Solutions Research Group, which surveys user technology habits, published a report earlier this year called “Age of Disconnect Anxiety,” which found 68 percent of Americans say they feel disoriented, nervous and anxious when deprived of internet access.

“I dated someone who was online just as much as I was, if not more,” I tell Atherton. “Often, we’d be in the same room for hours, but we hardly talked. We had a rule against talking in the ‘computer lab,’ actually. If we had something to say, we’d IM. But it wasn’t chit chat, it had to be important.”

“Dude, that’s totally messed up,” Atherton responds. “I don’t think it was technology’s problem. I think it was you guys.”

He might not be wrong about that. But neither am I wrong to wonder whether ambient awareness tools, despite being made to facilitate communication and enable connection, get in the way of communication.

For her piece for LifeWire, Diane Mapes talked to Joe Guppy, a Seattle couples counselor, who agreed.

“Communication problems seem to be the number one thing people ask about when they call,” Guppy told Mapes. “They come to the session and pay me $100 just so they can sit together and talk. And to me, the number one red flag is if each person is engaged in their own cyberworld or video world. I had one couple that would even get into arguments via text message.”


A friend of mine calls Twitter “the anti-marriage,” which is funny because he wants to marry a girl he hooked up with on the microblogging platform. But still, I can’t help but agree. As our networks expand thanks to social technology and people cater more and more to our niches, we’re less likely to move in the same circles and discuss the same things with our significant others.

Social networking may enable us to hook up easily and ambient awareness may accelerate the development of our relationships, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t taking a toll on established relationships. And it’s not just about taking real quality time together with zero interruptions — it’s affecting sex, too.

In his Sexploration column, Brian Alexander declared how surprised he was by reports on technology and human interaction, which, “if taken together, could indicate that we are spending big money to kill off our sex lives.”

Alexander quotes Marta Meana, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who studies desire and treats people suffering from low to no desire, including couples in sexless marriages.

“There are reasons to believe there is a link,” Meana says of sex drive and technology. “If we are feeling like we are multi-tasking a lot, and our attention is divided many ways, that is getting in the way of making quiet time to have sex and really focus on another human being […] Unfortunately, we do not privilege sensuous activity and sexuality the way we should in our marriages.”


My husband is so jealous of my laptop that if he could take it out back for a fistfight, he probably would. Luckily, he can’t, because I’m not sure he’d win, as he’s not exactly the fighting kind.

“You being on the internet makes me feel isolated the way you feel isolated when you’re not on the internet,” he said recently when I told him what I was writing about.

“That’s because I am your internet, darling.”

I waited for him to retort, “no, iJustine is my internet.”

But he didn’t. He doesn’t know who Justine Ezarik is or that on her Twitter bio she says, “I am the internet.”

Joe Guppy, the couples counselor cited above, suggests a way to keep connected to your partner in the age of perma-connection to the world: involving your partner in your digital distractions. Other people suggest weekly technology sabbaticals.

Outside of YouPorn, I haven’t had much success getting my husband excited about my digital distractions. But we have established that lunch, dinner and bed time are one-on-one interaction times.

It’s going well. I mean, we fought less when we hardly interacted. But, you know, at least we’re talking.