In celebration of the historic Back to The Future Day, I rewatched the classic movie and was charmed, as always, by the 80’s vision of the new millennium. Flying cars, 3-second pizza machines, talking appliances—this was the life! And of course, featured prominently was that great 1980’s tool of the future: the videophone. In The Future, everyone was going to own a videophone. Because what could be more wonderful than being able to actually look at your friends and family members while you merrily converse!?
But apart from the odd video Skype session (limited, as far as I know, to conversations among families separated by oceans and conferences with bosses who want to know that, even though you're working from home, you’ve still put on pants) it now seems obvious that nobody in their right mind wants to look at the person they’re talking to on the phone. In fact, increasingly, we don’t even want to talk on the phone.
This point was hammered home to me the other day as I watched my husband gamely dictate a text into his new iWatch. He was thrilled when—after several tries—the watch got it right (“Meet you at 7?”) and happily sent the message off to its recipient. I pointed out that he’d just talked to a watch so that the watch could then send a written message to his friend, who let’s hope would just buckle down and type a message back (frankly, I’m not ready to live in a world where everyone’s talking to their watch). Was that really easier than just making a call?
But I’m not saying my husband’s the oddball. In fact, it seems clear that the technologies that are changing our social lives are increasingly allowing us to become more introverted—more private, more protective of our personal space, and more choosy about our communications.
The year 2015 is an introvert’s paradise. If you told introverts from days of old how good we have it today, they’d laugh and tell you to stop dreaming. No longer does anyone expect you to answer the phone when they call. You can simply send them a written message, whenever you can muster the energy. Friendships are maintained not by laborious socializing, but through asynchronous online connections: a Like on a comment here, a shared photo there. Finding a mate doesn’t mean braving a loud, smelly bar. Simply call up a well-organized list of possible loves, and spend as much time as you like trying to compose a witty message to spark their interest.
It’s clear that technology has made life much easier for Introverts. But to say that the world is becoming friendlier to introverts is to ignore the deeper question: why? Why did texting take off, while the videophone is now a laughable anachronism? Why, when we had a chance to develop technology that changed the way we interacted with one another, did we choose technology that allows us to keep our distance?
Although many researchers say that the population is composed equally of Introverts and Extraverts, the major technological changes in our social lives seem to consistently tip in favor of the Introverts. And although one could argue that techie inventor types are more likely to be introverted, and thus come up with technology that favors their own style, that doesn’t explain why everyone—including many supposed Extraverts—is so eager to adopt a new, more removed style of interacting. Could it be that all those self-proclaimed Extraverts aren’t so extraverted after all? Do they actually hate answering the phone as much as the rest of us?
There have been some studies that indicate that Extraverts and Introverts do use social media differently. But, contrary to what you might expect, the findings don’t show that Introverts are hopping on social media to escape the more traditional means of connecting with others. In fact, Extraverts are more likely to use social media, and more likely to spend a significant amount of time doing so.
Similarly, studies of mobile phone use indicate that Extraverts and Introverts do use their phones differently—but as with social media, the results are counterintuitive. Extraverts are more likely to spend time talking and texting, while Introverts simply spend less time with their phones in general. While you might expect Extraverts to appreciate the more engaged nature of a phone call, it seems even they find it appealing to text instead.
Now, you may say, this isn’t all that strange. Extraverts just enjoy interacting with others, period, so they take more advantage of new opportunities to do so—through whatever medium is available. But if that’s the case, why have all the new media made communication slower in pace, less demanding, more thoughtful, and generally more favorable to introverts? And why are Extraverts perfectly happy to adopt all these new technologies to interact?
Perhaps it’s that, deep down inside, we’re all a bit introverted. We all wish for an escape hatch when we see an obnoxious coworker heading our way. We all have moments where a particularly idiotic comment has flown out of our mouths and we wish we could have written our thoughts down—maybe sent them off to an editor—before contributing to the public discourse. We all yearn for a bit more privacy and space in a world increasingly invaded by demands on our time.
Or, perhaps, we’re all shooting ourselves in the foot. Because if half of us are really and truly extraverted, we’re creating a world where fewer and fewer of our interactions with one another are actually satisfying. And that’s not a future that serves any of us.