TED Talk: Stefana Broadbent & The Democratization of Intimacy

I couldn’t rightly follow the last mournful post concerning the demise of Vancouver’s Duthie Books with anything less than this heartwarming – and slightly political in inspiration – look at what technology has lent to what Stefana Broadbent calls the “democratization of intimacy.” As someone with a texting, emailing, (soon-to-be) video chatting mother, who lives in close contact with everyone in my life through the crystal ball of my cell phone, I appreciate the positive – and pervasive – spin put on this revolution in personal communication.

Broadbent looks at the historical underpinnings of our need to control the attention of democratic bodies, employees, and (naturally) students, and posits that there is no great threat in allowing people to direct their own attention while “on the clock,” and that such banning of personal communication is counter to a basic human need for intimacy with our friends and family.

I don’t have a No Cell Phones sign in my class (and am in fact generally excited at the prospect of my students arriving with iPhones, iTouches, and other smartphone \ palm devices). And yet I also don’t have problems (too often) with students texting, surfing, or otherwise abusing the use of these devices. In my class such tools are put to use to find and communicate and record information, to strengthen networks, and advance learning. And even when they’re not being used like that, who has time to text during one of our classes?

Some interesting moments for me:

On how many people we each know…

For 20 years, I’ve been looking at how people use channels such as email, the mobile phone, texting, etc. What we’re actually going to see is that, fundamentally, people are communicating on a regular basis with five, six, seven, of their most intimate sphere. Now, lets take some data. Facebook. Recently some sociologists from Facebook — Facebook is the channel that you would expect is the most enlargening of all channels. And an average user, said Cameron Marlow, from Facebook, has about 120 friends. But he actually talks to, has two-way exchanges with about four to six people on a regular base, depending on his gender. Academic research on instant messaging also shows 100 people on buddy lists, but fundamentally people chat with two, three, four — anyway, less than five. My own research on cellphones and voice calls show that 80 percent of the calls are actually made to four people. 80 percent. And when you go to Skype, it’s down to two people.

On school (and work)’s division of public and private

If you think nursery, kindergarten, first years of school are just dedicated to take away the children, to make them used to staying long hours away from their family. And then the school enacts perfectly well, mimics perfectly all the rituals that we will start in offices, rituals of entry, rituals of exit, the schedules, the uniforms in this country, things that identify you, team-building activities, team building that will allow you to basically be with a random group of kids, or a random group of people that you will have to be with for a number of time. And of course, the major thing: learn to pay attention, to concentrate and focus your attention. This only started about 150 years ago. It only started with the birth of modern bureaucracy, and of industrial revolution. When people basically had to go somewhere else to work and carry out the work. And when with modern bureaucracy there was a very rational approach, where there was a clear distinction between the private sphere and the public sphere. So, until then, basically people were living on top of their trades. They were living on top of the land they were laboring. They were living on top of the workshops where they were working.

But no Facebook at school!

People have taken this amazing possibility of actually being in contact all through the day or in all types of situations. And they are doing it massively. The Pew Institute, which produces good data on a regular basis on, for instance, in the States, says that — and I think that this number is conservative — 50 percent of anybody with email access at work, is actually doing private email from his office. I really think that the number is conservative. In my own research, we saw that the peak for private email is actually 11 o’clock in the morning, whatever the country. 75 percent of people admit doing private conversations from work on their mobile phones. 100 percent are using text.

Why we need to teach attention literacy

And every day, every single day, I read news that makes me cringe, like a 15-dollar fine to kids in Texas, for using, every time they take out their mobile phone in school. Immediate dismissal to bus drivers in New York, if seen with a mobile phone in a hand. Companies blocking access to IM or to Facebook. Behind issues of security and safety, which have always been the arguments for social control, in fact what is going on is that these institutions are trying to decide who, in fact, has a right to self determine their attention, to decide, whether they should, or not, be isolated. And they are actually trying to block, in a certain sense, this movement of a greater possibility of intimacy.

It is not a matter of banning cell phones, or even giving them a constant working purpose in our classrooms (such that they are not idle and hence a distraction, or even to meet students “on their turf”), but rather, a focus on raising learners – and to continue in Broadbent’s vain: citizens – that exist within the emerging fluidity of the 24/7 social media cycle, and yet are empowered by its capabilities to unite, and connect, rather than cowed by its vapid and addictive lesser qualities.

Addendum: Literally as I published this post the first time, the following article came across my Tweetdeck feed from the New York Times – “If your kids are awake, they’re probably online.” Combined with some of the statistics above, the following is staggering to consider:

Those ages 8 to 18 spend more than seven and a half hours a day with such devices, compared with less than six and a half hours five years ago, when the study was last conducted. And that does not count the hour and a half that youths spend texting, or the half-hour they talk on their cellphones. And because so many of them are multitasking — say, surfing the Internet while listening to music — they pack on average nearly 11 hours of media content into that seven and a half hours. Dr. Michael Rich, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital Boston who directs the Center on Media and Child Health, said that with media use so ubiquitous, it was time to stop arguing over whether it was good or bad and accept it as part of children’s environment, “like the air they breathe, the water they drink and the food they eat.”

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