Digitization Drives Cultural Shifts

The dynamics of human interaction have changed dramatically over the past 20 years, since the advent of the internet. Digital culture is supposed to make life easier—and yet, new problems frequently emerge from it: misunderstandings of tone and words, and cyberbullying. While we now can interact with people around the world yet stay in the comfort of our home, and we have many more options for work such as telecommuting, plus we can share ideas at the click of a button, we are also losing real human contact and vital social skills. As technology changes our preferred methods of communication—in an effort to make life more convenient—new social problems have developed. We try to address these problems and educate people about the dangers of, for example, cyberbullying, but the most commonly prescribed remedy (not using smart phones) is too simplistic. In our increasingly digitized world, we have to use technology to communicate and connect, but this technology has also shifted our cultural dynamics. People have had to re-learn how to interact. The latest technology seems poised, however, to bring us back to the older, “better” ways of communicating by avoiding potentially problematic anonymous online forums and by making face-to-face meetings more accessible and transparent.

The transition to entirely digital communication has been a slow process, fraught with debate. Generational divides and differences have often exposed resistance to using digital technology in business and in private life. An international survey of executives reported in McKinsey Quarterly’s July 2017 article, “Culture for a Digital Age,” showed that most executives who were hesitant to “embrace a digital culture” were, simply put, afraid. These executives cited “cultural barriers”—not fully understanding digital trends and seeing investment in digitization as a risk—as their main problem. Cultural barriers may be age-related, in many cases, and such barriers may cause a company to underinvest in new technology and miss important business opportunities. Other problems with cultural divides within business include blaming and targeting employees who have an online presence outside of work. This situation is a Catch-22: most people (including employees) need to have an online presence to establish their digital identity and professional credibility, yet commenting online or posting photos has gotten many people fired. Perhaps this unfortunate trend will change when the pre-internet generation is fully retired from business. Nevertheless, the phenomenon of older generations bemoaning what has been lost due to change is nothing new. From the loss of cursive handwriting to the loss of handwritten notes, to a supposed loss of attention span due to excessive online video watching, people who resist change will always find a reason to argue that the “old way” was better.

The old-fashioned way of running a business is anathema to many Millennials because of cultural shifts caused, in part, by digitization. A generation that grew up with group chats and instant messages does not want their voice to be stifled and they expect to share and participate in business decisions. Moreover, the old-fashioned hierarchy system in business, complete with big, private offices versus cubicles, is something that younger workers find offensive. Digital forums that Millennials grew up with invite collaboration. A Millennial may also think, why wait weeks for a decision from the boss, when a group can reach consensus or compromise together, more democratically? This generation has been raised to participate rather than to blindly follow commands, and in many ways, this is a good thing. Still, it’s easy to misunderstand a Millennial given their preferred modes of communication and their direct style, which has led to a clash between those who have grown up with digital culture and those who are still trying to adapt to it. The table below, published in 2013 with the article “Shifting to a digital culture” in the Australian newsletter, CIO, demonstrates this clash between analog and digital cultures:

Objections to digitization often center on the potential for wasting time in the workplace if employees can access the internet. At the same time, however, the internet is essential for research, which is far simpler now thanks to our devices and ever-present WiFi. Nevertheless, doing any work online carries the potential for getting off course or wasting time, thanks to the internet’s myriad distractions. What does make digitization especially useful is, however, its capacity for sharing ideas and its positive effect on teaching. Picture a seminar where the speaker only needs one device to share text, photos, video, and sound files. Multimedia presentations are what people expect now, and digitization has amplified our ability to share ideas and collaborate. Over the past 10 years, there have been blanket assumptions that the future of work and education will be entirely online, but when people are surveyed, as a study from Columbia University Teachers College showed, the majority state that they still prefer going to work in a real building or attending actual classes in a brick-and-mortar school. Perhaps a mix of resources, both analog and digital, is the best recipe for success, and this is also a way to reconcile the combative analog and digital cultures.

Going entirely digital is not the answer. The many negatives of digitization include its effect on social skills. While the digital world makes it easier to communicate with people and share ideas, it is also rife with problems. For one, basic etiquette can disappear; seldom is “please” or “thank you” said online. Many people need to take classes in “netiquette” for this reason. Also, hiding behind a screen or an avatar makes people feel more powerful, and the typical anonymity of online forums makes it easier to be cruel. When people can’t see others’ facial expressions, they feel freer to be nasty or insulting. Indeed, putting groups of anonymous people together as a team is a recipe for disaster, as Philip Zimbardo realized after his famous “Stanford Prison Experiment:” these groups find power in their numbers, and often gang up on others. Even older people, who know better and are critical of this sort of accidental cyberbullying, display the same behavior when they attack others online for unpopular opinions.

Digitization allows for attacking in a different sense: cyberbullying did not and could not exist before the internet, though bullying in some form has always existed. Cyberbullying is different because it attracts gangs of people to harass a victim, while the victim helplessly watches his or her reputation destroyed. There is no real way to fight back against cyberbullying because identities are hidden, and adversaries are many. Recent spates of suicides show just how painful cyberbullying is. Examples include the case of Tyler Clementi, whose roommate at Rutgers filmed him through a web cam and then widely disseminated this footage because it showed Clementi in a gay relationship. Clementi killed himself because of this cyberbullying (and invasion of privacy), and the roommate was found guilty and sent to jail, albeit only for 30 days. The medium of digital communication has amplified the message of bullying. People need to be made aware of the potentially fatal consequences of cyberbullying, and anonymity online should be discouraged. When people are responsible for the impact of their words, they will be more careful online because they won’t want their own negative moments shared widely and derided.

People also need to anticipate how their words online might be misconstrued. One persistent problem with digital communication is misunderstanding of tone, whether deliberate or accidental. In particular, sarcasm or joking can be misconstrued, and this issue pertains to even online interactions between friends. Why does this happen? Facial expressions, body language, and obvious tone of voice are all missing in online communications such as e-mail; this often leads to misunderstanding and much time is wasted trying to clear up these social problems. These misunderstandings may be further polluted when people assume laziness on the part of the message-sender and argue that people should stop e-mailing and texting and either pick up the phone or walk over to someone’s desk. But this “solution” is too simplistic because the world has changed dramatically: most younger people now consider a ringing phone a rude interruption, whereas older people will literally run to answer a ringing phone. Also, it’s nearly unthinkable now to drop by someone’s house and knock on the door without having a clear invitation to do so, or prior plans. Today, the most convenient way for people to communicate may be text or e-mail because the receiver makes a conscious choice to read and respond, and he or she may choose to respond later, at their own convenience.

No matter the method of communication—digital or analog—misunderstanding and taking things personally is a constant issue in human relationships. Becoming hyper-conscious of potential misunderstandings that might occur because of e-mail or text is perhaps the only way to deal with this problem. Excessive politeness in digital communication may be a solution. As psychologist Daniel Goleman noted in his 2007 New York Times op-ed, “E-mail is easy to write (and to misread)”, there is “…a design flaw at the interface where the brain encounters a computer screen” and humans have “…no online channels for the multiple signals the brain uses to measure emotions.” That’s why we erroneously assign a tone of voice to a flat, toneless e-mail. We may also project our own feelings onto an innocuous message and assume that a terse e-mail means that the sender is angry. Many misunderstandings arise when we can’t see another person’s facial expressions or body language. Emojis have helped, somewhat, and dictated e-mail might help, too, but no digital communication is perfect, and misreadings of digital communications are inevitable.

Face-to-face contact is essential for relationships of any kind, business or personal, so we keep trying to make it easier to see, talk to, and work with other people. In today’s fast-paced world, we need instant, or at least very fast, modes of communication. To that end, entrepreneur and technology innovator Elon Musk recently proposed a “hyperloop” that, he promises, will make travel simpler, and business meetings virtually painless. The Hyperloop Hotel that Musk announced is, as CNN Travel reported in June, 2017, a way for business travelers to stay in a comfortable hotel room while being safely whisked to another city. Once the destination has been reached, the traveler can get out of the hyperloop tube and interact and work, so this invention is really about making old-fashioned face-to-face (analog) interaction easier. Futuristic inventions such as Musk’s “hyperloop” may eventually make digital communication obsolete. Video conferencing is another mode of communication that could be nearly as effective as in-person meetings; at least it negates the need for expensive, time-consuming travel. Issues such as connectivity problems, sound glitches, blurry images and lost signals continue, however, to make video conferencing non-ideal and frustrating. Again, generational differences in digital culture sometimes exacerbate problems because there’s a learning curve for using video conferencing platforms such as GoToMeeting. Still, as face-to-face communication becomes faster, easier, more accurate, and more convenient, digital communication may fall by the wayside.

Given the many problems that have arisen from increasing digitization, many people wonder if it might be easier to revert to the old ways of communication and doing business. After all, people still crave human interaction and even enjoy coming out from behind their screens. Technology was supposed to make our lives simpler. Instead, we often find ourselves playing an interminable game of “Whack-a-Mole” as we try to smack down each silly, annoying new social problem that pops up. But technology itself is not the problem: people are. One good thing about digitization is that it will force us to try to be more clear and concise, and maybe someday we can also learn not to take other people’s words the wrong way.

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