The Effect of Technology on Behaviour

Mark Earls, ‘The Herdmeister’, is in town this week and we were having a catch up over a beer or three. Mark was described, by The Spectator no less, as ‘the essential guide to the new business landscape’ He has also been called “Malcolm Gladwell on speed’ (by the Guardian I think). He is quite simply one of the most interesting people to talk to about social behaviour, marketing and the impact of the internet. Anyone who reads my stuff will know he is a big influence.

We talked about a lot of things. I needed to pick his brains as I am going head to head with Paul Feldwick in a running debate “Market Leader” in the UK has organized – the first volley launches in their June edition. Paul is arguing (somewhat disingenuously) that the internet is a big fuss over nothing – plus ca change etc. I have, what should be, the easy task of pointing out that it is changing just about everything. The problem is that Paul Feldwick is very smart and was in fact Mark’s mentor when he joined BMP many years ago. I will need to get my thinking straight, so Mark’s visit was very timely.

I’ll share more of our discussion in other posts as part of a rehearsal for the Market Leader piece. One thing we did discuss was the effect the internet has, positive and negative, on peoples’ behaviour. Mark’s business thinking is always underpinned by his knowledge of psychology, social anthropology and social sciences generally. We quickly agreed that since opposable thumbs, stone ages and iron ages, technology shapes society and the behaviour of people within it. On the positive side the internet has created a seismic shift in communication and collaboration. The technology has heightened our desire to share ideas and build on the ideas of others.

One insight Mark had was that when people of like minds cluster together they become more extreme in their views. He cited America as an example of this – creationists become radical, clusters of democrats in Texas become myopic. The reason is simple – we don’t hear opposing views so we become even more set in our own ways of thinking. Pluralism is vital to social progress – thesis then anti-thesis creates a new synthesis as Hegel explained.

The internet offers the opportunity for both cluster extremism and dialectic progress. We can violently agree with each other or take the opportunity to surf other points of view that move our thinking forward.

We also discussed the effect of the internet on social etiquette. People behave badly towards others on the internet, it encourages extreme behaviour for which one would normally be embarrassed or even ashamed. We’ve all experienced the ‘email arguments’ – a small, often unintentional, offence can escalate into a full blown, daggers drawn, row. Emails encourage short sharp communication (gotta clear that inbox) with no subtlety or finesse. We can’t see the person we’re responding to, so we do not have the advantage of facial expression or non-verbal communication upon which we rely as super social apes.

But there is also the perceived disconnectedness and safety of the internet. We sit there late at night in front of our keyboard, possibly with a few glasses of wine on board, and fire off crass tweets and blog comments. I’ve done it myself. It’s not really ‘us’, it’s a darker more extreme version of ‘us’. We would never behave like that face to face, we aspire to higher standards of social behaviour. It’s like road rage. We call the guy who cut us up in traffic “a stupid ****”  from the cocoon of our car – something we never do if we just bump into people on the pavement while walking. In fact often, if someone bumps into you, by sheer reflex, you apologize to them.

We feel disconnected to the person who cuts us up in traffic. We can’t see them properly, we’re robbed of the non-verbal communication that tells us whether it was unintentional or deliberately rude. The person who bumps into us on the pavement reveals more about themselves. They are in a hurry, they look worried about something, they were distracted – that’s fine, we’ll let it go. Up close, we can judge people by their intentions, not just their actions.

The other feature of the internet is that you cannot target or conceal your comments and behaviour. You put it out there with some vague idea of who it is aimed at but  almost anyone can get access to it (or see it – remember those Facebook pictures?). Mark was telling me a story about some innocent joke he made about dead sheep in a review he posted. For months he was Cyber Stalked by some woman – one presumes an Animal Activist. She left comments on his blog and sent him tweets that became more and more bizarre and threatening. It turns out she held a very responsible management job somewhere in the States, by all accounts a perfectly nice woman. She had behaved badly but when Mark contacted her directly – personally – to explain he had meant no offence by the joke so could she kindly leave him alone, she behaved like the person on the pavement, “Yes, of course, sorry, my mistake”.

Because, of course, the safety, disconnectedness and anonymity of the internet are only perceived. The cocoon of your car is not a real cocoon. If you behave badly or inappropriately you can be confronted with the consequences of your actions.

Mark and I agreed that we are still, as a society, developing the internet etiquette that goes with its undoubted freedom of expression and access. The technology has changed our behaviour and not always for the better. In time, the intelligent and sensible among us will learn to behave better. We are social apes, and that means that over generations of genetic honing we have learned that it benefits us to get along with others and, if asked nicely, to leave them alone.

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