In 2006, Lancaster University Professor Tony McEnery did a study suggesting U.K. teens had a vocabulary of 12,600 words, compared with the 21,400 word vocabulary of the average 24-35 year old. The study concluded this was the result of something dubbed “technology isolation syndrome,” a result of teens spending too much time online and playing video games without actually having conversations. If this is to believed, George Orwell’s 1984 predicted this in 1949. The book’s fictitious totalitarian regime created Newspeak to eliminate unnecessary words and adjectives with the goal of eliminating the ability to articulate thought. While there’s no suggestion of subversive intent in McEnery’s study, the outcome certainly sounds the same on the surface.
I’m skeptical there’s any connection between the decline in vocabulary and a rise in technology use. The idea that technology isolation syndrome, as defined by the decline in vocabulary, is a real problem caused by increased availability of technological tools is just as absurd as the idea that the automobile (another technological tool) caused isolation because it allowed us the freedom to travel further from home in a single day. Any technology can be used to collaborate or isolate, depending on how it is applied.
It would be interesting to know if there was a follow-up study to McEnery’s work, checking the vocabulary of the same participants to see how much vocabulary increase occurs as a result of work environments and adult interaction both through technology and in face-to-face interaction. I know my own vocabulary is dramatically larger as a result of the information and interaction in my post teenage years, which predate most online video game play and what we think of as the Internet.
In a recent question from a LockerGnome community member, Chris addressed the question of whether technology isolates us or unites us. He comes to the same conclusion I do. Does technology bring us together as a larger world society or isolate us in our own pixelated ivory towers? Connecting with other people via IM, email, Twitter, Facebook, or any of the other places people communicate online provides the opportunity for geographically distant people to connect and interact. It also makes it easier for people who live close together to share their travels and experiences on a more continuous basis. Today’s social media tools allow us to find more like-minded people with far greater ease than we could in the past. Social media is the technological advancement beyond posting a tear-off sheet on the grocery store bulletin board in hopes of finding a new drummer or new players of a role-playing game.
Technology provides the power to divide us with many of the same tools we unite with. We can choose to tune out the world with technology. Ordering groceries online eliminates the need to see our neighbors at the grocery store. We can choose to avoid phone conversations, emails, or any other form of communication simply by ignoring them, which is really no different than choosing to leave a knock at the door unanswered. When can further isolate ourselves online by trolling and lashing out in anger at people we disagree with, which is the digital equivalent to yelling ‘get off my lawn’ from the front porch. But that’s more alienating than isolating.
What do you think? Are social media tools and technology bringing us together or do they allow us to be more anti-social and withdrawn from the world?