The Culture-Technology Convergence

High-tech, low-manners: The recent fascination with Israel’s astonishing aptitude for producing high-tech patents has generated some serious books, including Startup Nation. The Sloan boys even talk about how the “rude” Israeli culture may be one of the factors in this technological creativity. There  has been some discussion lately about how technology may be affecting culture.  For example, it is logical to assume that SMS abuse has led to a generation’s inability to spell.  And certainly we have all been subjected to that oh-so-private conversation being conducted at full volume on a cellphone.

Some say that these gadgets that we take for granted (and can’t live without) come at a high social price. Children are less physically active, more socially isolated, and less able to concentrate. 

The problem is that here in Israel, this is difficult to measure because the underlying culture has always been a bit rough around the edges.  I won’t go so far as to say rude, but it certainly lacking in the niceties that lubricate social interaction in most western cultures. Sometimes it isn’t so much what people say, as how they say it. (Trust me: there is a huge difference between saying, “I don’t agree with that approach” and “You’re wrong and you’re an idiot, and now you’ll probably get all upset, huh?”)

In the connection between technology and manners (or lack thereof), I think that technology is simply making it easier or more acceptable for people to slide into increasingly rude behavior:

  • In a meeting with a potential new client, the CEO showed up late and unprepared. He had not looked at the materials in advance. “No need,” he said, “because we can just put them up on the screen now and look at them.” The meeting room technology made it easy for him to justify his boorish behavior.
  • A friend never announces herself when she calls.  She assumes that my cellphone displays who is calling, so she feels entitled to dive into a conversation with no preamble. Technically, she is correct, yet I still find the lack of basic civility somewhat jarring.
  • Another client has automated a big part of their sales to web-based forms.  They have made it virtually impossible to deal with a real human being.  The online purchasing works well for 90% of their customers, but it is fairly common that someone wants to do something that the automated system does not support (or doesn’t handle very gracefully).  The technology barrier between the customer and the people at the company may be saving them some money in personnel overhead, but is undoubtedly costing them some money in lost sales.
  • A colleague showed up very late for meeting because he had relied on his GPS navigation system, rather than do any homework before leaving his house.  With all the road construction in the area, the directions were faulty.  As a result, four people had the choice of either waiting for him or starting the meeting without him, and then having to repeat all the critical information once he arrived.
  • One project features an engineer who wants us to interact through an online, virtual office.  I find the sound quality terrible and find the interactions more burdensome than helpful. The engineer, however, is so enamoured of the technology that he wants to use it despite it being worse than a plain old telephone call or email message.

Perhaps there is a place for teaching etiquette within the framework of a high-tech world.

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