Mark Bauerlein is an English professor, moral panic practitioner, technological determinist, and G. Stanley Hall kool aid drinker, as evidenced by his book, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future.
These credentials are evidently sufficient for an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, where Bauerlein argues that digitally mediated communication makes kids social morons too stupid to understand nonverbal cues:
In Silicon Valley itself, as the Los Angeles Times reported last year, some companies have installed the “topless” meeting—in which not only laptops but iPhones and other tools are banned—to combat a new problem: “continuous partial attention.” With a device close by, attendees at workplace meetings simply cannot keep their focus on the speaker. It’s too easy to check email, stock quotes and Facebook. While a quick log-on may seem, to the user, a harmless break, others in the room receive it as a silent dismissal. It announces: “I’m not interested.” So the tools must now remain at the door.
Older employees might well accept such a ban, but younger ones might not understand it. Reading a text message in the middle of a conversation isn’t a lapse to them—it’s what you do. It has, they assume, no nonverbal meaning to anyone else.
It does, of course, but how would they know it?
I mean really, young people—do you have to create your own social meanings? Can’t you just assimilate completely into the dominant culture?
Bauerlein cites as evidence the work of anthropologist, Edward T. Hall, who “argued that body language, facial expressions and stock mannerisms function ‘in juxtaposition to words,’ imparting feelings, attitudes, reactions and judgments in a different register.” Apparently it never occurs to Bauerlein that Hall was describing a particular social context (i.e., face-to-face communication) and other cues may fill the role of nonverbals in different contexts. Or that he is perpetuating a tired trope that has accompanied youth and technology for nearly one hundred years–despite the fact that radio, television, video games, and other media have yet to destroy society.
Bauerlein ends with an ethnocentric plea for compassion :
Lots of folks grumble about the diffidence, self-absorption and general uncommunicativeness of Generation Y. The next time they face a twenty-something who doesn’t look them in the eye, who slouches and sighs for no apparent reason, who seems distracted and unaware of the rising frustration of the other people in the room, and who turns aside to answer a text message with glee and facility, they shouldn’t think, “What a rude kid.” Instead, they should show a little compassion and, perhaps, seize on a teachable moment. “Ah,” they might think instead, “another texter who doesn’t realize that he is communicating, right now, with every glance and movement—and that we’re reading him all too well.”
Seems to me a more compassionate interpretation would be ‘People construct their own meanings, groups negotiate meanings that are contested and constantly changing, and the dominant meanings will be different in twenty years whether I like it or not. Though it may come at a cost to certain literacies and meanings I value, these youths are engaging their social world and developing new literacies and meanings. Good for them.’