Constant Connection

By Anna Lynn Spitzer

Dourish studies technology's impact. (Photo: Paul Kennedy).

Irvine, CA, May 3rd, 2012- - UC Irvine employee Gay Garton’s only grandchild lives more than 7,500 miles away, near Tel Aviv, Israel. The proud grandma, however, sees six-month-old Ilai weekly.

Every Sunday morning she and her husband, Rick, watch, listen and interact with the cherubic baby as he kicks and splashes in the bathtub and coos to his parents. Ilai recognizes his grandparents and lights up at the sound of their voices.

This cherished ritual occurs via a free, interactive digital service called Skype, a voice-over-Internet-Protocol software application, which enables the Garton family to see and hear each other in real time.  “It’s been wonderful,” Garton says. “Of course we’d rather they were here, but it’s the next best thing. It keeps us close.”

Skype, with more than 663 million registered users, is one of many digital technologies transforming daily life.  Those little 1s and 0s – the building blocks of binary code – are throwing wide open a world pulsing with new possibilities in business, education, banking, healthcare, politics and social interactions.

Skype, which debuted in 2008, actually has its origins in efforts to produce a technology that could enable long-distance business communications. Like many digital technologies, though, applications and devices have matured and morphed in ways their developers didn’t foresee, according to Paul Dourish, a UCI informatics professor, who studies the cultural impact of technology.

“For a long time we developed technologies purely with this idea of utility and efficiency in mind,” says Dourish, who was involved in this effort 20 years ago as a researcher at the Rank Xerox EuroPARC.

“But we don’t know what those products are when we finish designing them in the lab. They only really become something when they’re out in the world. What people do with them is what gives them meaning.”

In the last five to 10 years, he says, people suddenly started to think about their technologies in ways that eclipsed efficiency. “People want an emotional connection; they want to be connected to people they care about. The uses are much more about personal experience.”

Overlapping demands
In today’s connected world, those personal experiences often overlap with workplace demands. Studies show that the majority of information-economy professionals striving for success believe they must be accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Melissa Mazmanian studies mobile communication technologies from a sociological and organizational studies perspective.
“Many people are deeply engaged in professional and personal lives simultaneously,” something that wasn’t the norm 20 years ago, says the assistant professor of informatics.

Fierce competition in the knowledge-based economy, combined with the ambiguity associated with knowledge and managerial work, has led to an expectation of ’round-the-clock availability.  “When you reply to your email at 10 p.m. it shows a level of dedication that can become a proxy for being good [at your job],” Mazmanian explains.

Mazmanian (left) sees personal and professional lives overlapping due to technology; Maurer says online payment
systems raise important questions about consumer protection. (Photos: Michelle Kim)


A recent study of more than 1300 international professionals showed that 80 percent of them are monitoring their jobs a minimum of 85 hours each week; the remaining 20 percent monitor around 70 hours a week.

Surprisingly, it’s often peer pressure, not the boss’s expectations, fueling the frenzy. “People expect constant connectivity of each other because they’re all trying to succeed and be considered a good colleague. Now that we have the capacity to be connected all the time, what are we saying if we choose not to be? In the professional zone that can be particularly problematic.” 

Mazmanian sees a new social dynamic emerging. “These demands affect our ability to focus on each other and have engaged conversations, both with the people on the other end of the email and the people in front of us. We’ve become used to partial engagement with each other.” 

For example, parents, once shackled to the office during business hours, now attend their children’s school assemblies and sporting events – mobile devices firmly in tow. But at what price? Says Mazmanian, “You’ve got to wonder: how many times are they checking email? Are they able to engage in the game? Does their child see them as halfway there?” 

Context Collapse
The blurring of boundaries between work and personal time is an example of what Dourish calls “context collapse,” a loosening of the cultural norms that dictate behavior in specific milieus.  One driver, he says, is social media, in which people from various segments of life tend to coexist in the same space. 

His 750 Facebook “friends” include current and former students, professional colleagues, family members and personal friends. “I used to be able to hold my home life and my work life in separate places to some extent,” Dourish says. “Somehow, things have become very different.”

But he believes those boundaries are in constant flux, and the opportunities created by technology provide ways to supplant the burdens. “I can maintain multiple email accounts and that helps me separate things every bit as much as it might accidentally integrate them,” he says. 

Dourish shrugs. “There’s always been a certain tendency to associate with technology this idea that the world is going to hell in a hand-basket. And similarly there is a utopian narrative that technology is going to save us. The truth is always somewhere in between.” 

Adds Mazmanian, “I think it is incumbent on all of us to understand these dynamics so that we, as individuals and as a society, can think through what’s going on and make informed decisions.” 

There’s no question that opportunities are flourishing. Online classes connect interested learners with elite universities. Oppressed citizens mobilize to overthrow autocratic governments. Complete DNA analyses require nothing more than a saliva sample and a small fee.

Businesses purchase services from the cloud instead of investing in expensive equipment, and collaborate face-to-face from far-flung locales.

It is not hot-off-the-press news that technology facilitates distance collaboration. The telephone and telegraph revolutionized communication two centuries ago, supporting the emergence of large companies with multiple locations. 

But today’s advances in instant communication – teleconferencing technology, email and online communication tools like Skype and instant messaging – allow business and research teams around the world to work together in ways that until recently were relatively untested. Informatics professors Judy and Gary Olson study the socio-technical perspectives of people collaborating across distances. Observations from the field and data from experiments in their Hana lab – Hana means behavior in Hawaiian – focus on understanding the social practices that contribute to success in these endeavors.

“Once you start collaborating at a distance, you cross cultural boundaries,” Gary says. “Being sensitive to differences in international collaborations is a very tricky thing.”

Numerous hurdles must be leapt. “People who have never met are more likely to mistrust each other or misattribute intentions,” Judy adds. “There are miscues, misinterpretations and lots of misunderstandings. So you have to do team building and extra clarification. It’s hardest when your workdays don’t even overlap; then you have to be extra careful about everything.”

The Olsons, who have studied approximately 500 collaborations over the past 20 years, used their data to develop a tool called “Collaboration Success Wizard.” Funded by the National Science Foundation, the Web-based service asks distance collaborators a series of questions in five categories about the nature of their work and the technology they’re using. Based on the teams’ responses, the wizard identifies potential problems and makes suggestions for improvement.

Enhancing Collaboration
Google has introduced a series of collaborative tools based in the cloud, which enable multiple users to simultaneously edit documents, share files and synchronize changes. These Google Apps are used by thousands of organizations around the world; Judy and Gary Olson laud their capacity to simplify distance collaboration.

“When you work together you also want artifacts; you want to get the diagram out and draw on it,” Judy says. “These tools can enable this. People thought it would be chaos, but it’s not; everybody loves it.”

The frequency and reach of international collaborations has caused Google to experiment as well with a tool that changes voice into text – a version of closed captioning – during teleconferencing. The Olson’s research has indicated a need; language can be a significant stumbling block. 

“One person we interviewed said he understood about 25 percent of what went on during teleconferences,” Gary says. “But with closed captioning, suddenly his comprehension went way up because he could deal with the printed language in ways he couldn’t with voice.”

While interactive technologies impact us all, perhaps nowhere has technology’s reach been more life-changing than in underdeveloped nations. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, villagers are using mobile phones for personal banking. New services are being added to older technologies like text messaging with dramatic results.

Kenya, Tanzania and Afghanistan are three of the countries where mobile-phone based money-transfer services have taken off. These countries lack electronic payment infrastructures, taken for granted in much of the world but expensive to construct. Mobile services, however, require only cellular towers and access to the cloud, both of which are readily available.  And mobile phones are abundant; almost everyone has access even if they don’t own one.

Now, instead of relying on bundles of currency, villagers trade their cash with a local money service provider, who loads monetary value into their cell phone accounts, allowing them to text payments to others as remittance or in exchange for goods and services. 

Bill Maurer, a UCI cultural anthropologist, directs the university’s Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion. The institute, founded in 2008 and funded with $6.13 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, supports research on mobile technology for providing banking and financial services to people in developing countries.

Mobile and Online Payment Systems
Maurer says that in Kenya, where a mobile money service named M-PESA was launched in 2008, nearly half the population now sends money by mobile phone. Kenyans used to transfer money by sending it to neighboring villages with bus drivers, who collected up to 20 percent for their services. M-PESA, by contrast, costs just pennies on the dollar.

A smiliar service is being embraced by dating couples in Afghanistan for other reasons. In a society where courtship can be difficult, mobile money transfer allows them to send monetary gifts to each other, easily and discreetly.

More developed nations, including Japan, Korea and Singapore, also are using smart phone payment systems. In 2011, consumers around the world spent $60 billion using mobile payment devices, according to a CBS News report. That figure is expected to increase to $170 billion by 2015.

In the U.S., Google has rolled out a mobile phone-based application called Google Wallet, a virtual “wallet” that stores payment cards and retail offers on the phone and online. The system utilizes a near-field communication chip in the phone that lets users pay by tapping the device against a store “reader.”

Another digital service called “Square” allows mobile merchants like food trucks and sidewalk vendors to accept credit card payments via a nickel-sized card reader that plugs into their cell phones. The application also offers a hands-free way for customers to pay using location-awareness technology and online bank accounts linked to their Square accounts.

Local currencies, a form of barter that replaces money and keeps trade within a specific community, have been around since the Great Depression. Born of economic downturns when people couldn’t afford basic goods and services, some are now going online, thanks to advances in technology.

Bernal Heights, an insular neighborhood in San Francisco, this year became the first to take barter one step further. Two technology-minded residents created a complementary currency system debit card that earns users credits for additional goods and services when they swipe it at local businesses.

Credit and debit cards allow users convenience and an instant record of their transactions. Most of us don’t stop to think, however, about who else has access to that transaction data. In the last 15-20 years, the payment industry has begun to capitalize on the inherent value of that information, giving rise to credit scoring and targeted marketing.

And our affinity for technology’s conveniences comes with a price. “People’s sense of intimate connection to the technology has mushroomed in a way that we didn’t predict or were ready for. But we need to think about these things and have a conversation about them,” Maurer says. “We need to stop and think a minute about what’s really free and what’s not free.”

For Maurer, these systems raise important questions about consumer protection. “We can contest a fraudulent credit card charge, but new payment systems are murkier on consumer protection,” he says. “The real challenge may not be the technology, but the willingness of stakeholders in industry and government to have a genuine conversation about consumer rights and the duties of private providers.”

 Digital systems of all kinds are fast becoming commonplace. We “like” things on Facebook, buy groceries and clothing online and connect with our colleagues on LinkedIn. That convenience and sense of instant connection has other consequences as well. 

 Privacy, for example, and the value of the data. “Certainly the Googles and Facebooks of the world imagine they can make a whole lot of money selling data to advertisers,” Maurer says. “Every time Google makes money off of my click history, should I get something for that? I’d be happy to give up my privacy if I got a chunk of what these companies are making off me.”

Newfound Potential
Dourish, the cultural technologist, sees technology’s downsides as part and parcel of the manmade process that created it. “Technology doesn’t just fall out of the sky; it’s produced by people, organizations, social forces and cultural expectations,” he says, “and it always speaks back to those. The technology creates both problems and opportunities.”
In each generation, it also has a way of creating questions about its social benefits. 

“We have a long history of looking back nostalgically about 100 years and saying ‘wasn’t it lovely back then?’ There’s documented evidence of people upset about the arrival of the Penny Post service in Great Britain because they were afraid it would stop people from visiting with each other in person,” Dourish says. “We’ve been here before.”

From political mobilization to instant communication to enhanced global understanding, though, it’s hard to deny interactive technology’s limitless potential. 

“I think it has given us different kinds of ideas of our potential,” says Dourish. “There is a global awareness and a much more intricate pattern of connection. And it enlarges our perspective. I can think about my country and my hemisphere in different kinds of ways because I am connected to them in new ways. 

“There are all sorts of things we may think about as being doable now that we wouldn’t have thought of as being doable before.”

-Anna Lynn Spitzer