Groundhog Day: Is Technology Advancing or Hindering Our Personal Relationships?

  My closest friends will confirm that I am sometimes not the quickest to pick up on unspoken social cues. While I am capable of deciphering certain FCC-type codes (for example, when the FCC says, “enhanced requirements,” the likelihood is that the result will be “more onerous requirements”), there have been times where I have needed a gentle prompt to be properly responsive (for example, being guided that the correct response to a lady’s, “Is it cold in here” is to offer one’s jacket, rather than, “Nope, feels just fine”). Fortunately, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed a wearable that “lets you know how the conversation is going.”

As reported by Wired, the app utilizes a smartwatch that can measure movement, heart rate, skin temperature and other indicators, and combines those data with interpretations of the speaker’s tone, word choice, energy and other variables to indicate whether a conversation is “positive” or “negative.” MIT researchers identified 500 indicators that (no pun intended) speak to how a conversation is going. The app's algorithms sort through the information to deliver the up/down vote to app user. And, while I might eventually understand that someone needs to borrow a coat, the app can be especially useful where the social interaction bridge is necessary to overcome emotional or other health-related issues that could interfere with an individual’s ability to convey or interpret meaning beyond the spoken word. Much like the way in which the lack of vocal inflection or facial expression can lead to misinterpretations in email messages, conditions that conflict with a user’s ability to read non-verbal cues can be assisted with the technology.

The app is only recently developed, yet boasts an 83 percent accuracy rate. The developers caution that users who are aware of the device’s use may attempt to compensate for it, thereby overriding some of the features that are designed to interpret natural conversation. Nevertheless, it is an example of how wearable technology is being applied to an expanding universe of disciplines.

At the same time, technology may be hurting our relationships. An article in the Wall Street Journal proposes that “Mindlessly checking Facebook makes you an awful lot like a lab rabbit habitually pressing a level hoping for a pellet.” After setting out that dismal appraisal, however, the author offers advice (culled from interviews with psychologists and neuroscientists) to help us out of the maze.  And, before you mutter, “Oh, those kids,” a new Nielsen study reports that Americans 35-49 spend nearly seven hours each week on social media. If you are reading this, then you probably in that demographic. So, this is about us, my friends.

The article proposes several steps toward decreasing dependencies on social media (even while noting that there remains debate among experts as to what rises to the level of addiction), including establishing “no screen” times and zones (dinner table and dinner hour, for example) as well as Wi-Fi routers or app blockers that can limit access. The article quotes Nir Eyal, author of “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products” as suggest that shaminging might work, too: “If someone is ignoring you at dinner, ask, ‘Is everything OK?’”

Of course, the MIT conversation app might alert the user that the question was asked less with sincerity, and more with irritation. 

Add new comment