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Time for Face-to-Face



“We’ve got to make face-to-face time sacred.”

Clifford Nass, Ph.D.


The quote above appeared in the obituary of Dr. Nass in The New York Times on Sunday. A professor at Stanford University, he had been doing pioneering research on the effect of our “screen-saturated, multitasking modern world.” His reported findings indicate that there is reason to be concerned about the consequences for American intellect.

Dr. Nass was only 55 when he died suddenly. How sad to lose the benefit of his research and his perspective on the digital age. To summarize metaphorically, we are experiencing high and rising tides of technological stimuli, and they are drowning human interaction on the beach where we used to play together.

This is not news, but perhaps some of the evidence of it is. Dr. Nass expressed concern about two things. He had concluded that screen technology is impairing our ability to (1) concentrate and think analytically and (2) feel empathy for others.

A decline in cognition may be evident in falling tests scores among American students. This could have to do with not only altered brain capacity but also the escalating amount of time invested in screen technology at the expense of other intellectual activities. The empathy deficit may be evident in contemporary politics.

We have become radically polarized in the last few years, and empathy is inconvenient to anyone occupying the space of ideologue. The liberal cannot afford to empathize with the business owner beset by regulation or with the taxpayer who feels pillaged by the government. The conservative cannot afford to empathize with the impoverished immigrant or a wild species threatened with extinction. Empathy seems to weaken one’s position, to make one vulnerable to the possibility of compromise. In a very competitive political environment, compromise is seen more as a loss than a mutually beneficial tie.

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If you’re going for a win-win outcome, you’re better served by time working the stage, the camera, or social media than by time invested in private conversations that risk the discovery of compatibilities. In fact, we’re hearing less and less about face-to-face in politics.

And is there anything to the fact that the leaders in Congress who are getting major credit for its dysfunction are young, relatively speaking? Is this a telltale sign of aversion to personal negotiations with which one has developed little skill? Will intractable conflict take the place of the civility and eloquence that have distinguished the historic moments of which our country is most proud?

Unfortunately this takes me to the growing problem of bullying among young Americans, which is also evidence of empathy deficit. Of course there always have been bullies, but the social media seem to be spawning large schools of them. The attacks are hidden initially, and so they can become dangerous before adults can intervene. Always deplorable, this behavior is now life-threatening.

As the digital age advances, another consideration is the fact that the possession of leading-edge devices has become a status symbol among the young. This suggests interesting, unintended consequences. If affluent families strive to provide their children with the very latest technology, does it mean that they will also be concentrating among them the negatives associated with the “screen world?” Can advantage be transformed into disadvantage if, as Dr. Nass believed, the overload may diminish intellect and empathy?

A sociologist somewhere undoubtedly has this question in his or her sights, along with the changing dynamics within the American family. One hears that the old-fashioned dinner time around a table where children learned how to converse and were taught manners is becoming extinct. After eating wherever, all may adjourn to their various devices. Even if some gather in front of a television, eyes are on the screen, not each other.

Taking this further, wouldn’t it be ironic if the disadvantaged were in some way advantaged by more limited access to the new technology? This thought occurred regarding Sunday commentary on an educational advance in the very conservative state of Oklahoma.

Back in 1998, Oklahoma passed a law providing all four-year-olds free access to prekindergarten. The children end up about half a year ahead of where they would have been otherwise, having made sharp gains in what are labeled “prereading, prewriting, and prearithmetic” skills. They also show major improvements in social skills, another word for “people skills.”

Mothers are encouraged to read to their children and chat with them constantly. That’s face-to-face time, isn’t it? Back to the basics, eh?

And now back to the issue of empathy, Oklahoma doesn’t seem to be motivated by such in this matter. The expressed aim is to “break the cycle of poverty,” which is just common sense. Further, there seems to be a perception of a clear choice, as in “build preschools now or prisons later.” Perhaps this effort could be enriched by more empathy.

Wouldn’t it be ironic if, in mobilizing America along Oklahoma lines to address the burgeoning problem with poverty, we laid a foundation for children in this population that would prove desirable for all? The imagination takes off.

In the moment, however, it seems that we are all unwittingly participating in an experiment with technology whose outcome no one can predict. In that field of uncertainty, it would appear that we are at risk for many unintended consequences. For example, Dr. Nass found that when students in a dorm (presumably at Stanford University) were required to have “face-to-face days,” they found it difficult. No matter how intelligent you are, it’s tough to develop social skills by staring at a screen. And how can you lead in their absence?

This reminds me of the point made in an earlier blog that it is important in this digital age to cultivate those qualities that make us human. Wouldn’t these include the ability to relate to each other in authentic and intimate ways? Ah, the face-to-face time Dr. Nass wanted to make sacred. Odd that it would come to this.


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