James Katz

Communication Unlimited … Blessing or Curse?, Part I

VTR Date: December 5, 2007

Dr. James E. Katz discusses the impact of communication technology.


GUEST: James E. Katz
VTR: 12/06/2007

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And my guest today, James E. Katz, is a noted colleague at Rutgers University, where we both teach communication … though Dr. Katz relates himself with genuine enthusiasm and real scientific insight to where our students, our nation, our society all are – and increasingly will be as communication technology becomes ever more unlimited … while I, Luddite that I am in essence, tend to view with alarm, rather than point with pride.

Not that my guest hasn’t expressed real concern about where communication technology may be taking us…and what its impact may be.

Indeed, his pioneering books and articles seemingly make him more often than not the academic expert print and electronic media turn to as they search out the social or psychological impact of the cell phone, or instant messaging or of the internet itself.

But if he had to, I would ask my guest just how he would evaluate, how he would add up the pluses and the minuses of the seemingly unlimited communication revolution that he’s watched over for so long now.

I know my guest has said there’s no going back, but, good, bad or indifferent, just how does he think we’ll now go forward? What happens next, Jim?

KATZ: Well, I think to answer the question of what happens next … it’s very useful, if you ever have a chance, to go visit a country that doesn’t have cell phones. Cuba is one that has limited cell phone access. North Korea is another country. And there you find a completely different world. Not just because of the political system, but because of the way people spend their time in public.

Even here, in these days, it’s hard to remember what it used to be like to walk down the street without seeing other people deeply enmeshed in their mobile phone conversations with some sort of distant “other” unseen. The way they have, in a sense, “checked out” of the street scene that they’re in with you, physically, but they’re “gone” mentally.

So I think one of the … tracing that trend from the recent past through the present, into the future. You can see that the distant invisible will be much more important in people’s lives than the physical reality that they’re in at the moment.

HEFFNER: With what implications?

KATZ: Well, I think one implication is that we’re going to have to learn how to respond to people who are, seemingly, shouting into the air, that they … we feel that they’re engaging with us, but they’re actually having an animated conversation with somebody perhaps in the next town, or perhaps the next continent.

We’ll have to struggle in check out lines with people who are on their cell phone, not only people ahead of us in the line … juggling their groceries, but often the clerk on the other side of the counter, who’s checking us out, is also spending time talking to a distant “other”.

I think this sort of juggling of reality that we have to face in daily life will cause us some discombobulation. On the other hand, I’ve also seen that people are remarkably resourceful in dealing with problems and are able to adjust to all kinds of things that … from the present day might seem difficult.

HEFFNER: But you know, back in the early days, when I went back to Rutgers in the sixties and Mason Gross, our President, had become so involved in Marshal McLuhan and his sayings and doings and I remember talking with Mason about a cartoon … it appeared somewhere … of the next generation, or maybe a couple of generations later … of a human being … and it was a Cyclops …

KATZ: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … with just a single eye …

KATZ: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: Do you think we’re going to change physically, psychologically, morally?

KATZ: Well, I think there are probably small physical changes. For example, people’s thumbs, to do the text messaging … are getting more nimble, but also we’re having new … newly created diseases of, of the thumb joint because of excessive thumb use.

Used to be a joke that people might have a cell phone physically implanted in their ear. But it’s no joke today when you see people walk around on a semi-permanent basis with some sort of earphone plugged in. So I think our physical appearance will be changing.

I think we’ll physically changing also in the way that we’re going to be able to be doing more multi-tasking in the future. So we’ll be able to be much nimbler at dealing with people, in conversation, while we’re also glancing, somewhat covertly at our cell phone to see what kind of message we might have.

So, yes, I think … although it won’t be anywhere as dramatic as our two eyes growing together … in a sense I think, metaphorically, we’ll have more eyes and more ears and more fingers to be handling all the different opportunities that these ever shrinking mobile devices give us, to fulfill our personal needs.

After all nobody’s forcing us, in general, to do all these things. These are things people willingly do. These activities, these multi-taking activities in public places. These are things people want to do because they want to get more out of their day, they want to be more friends with more people. They want to keep up to date with more things. And they don’t want to miss anything in their present environment.

So that requires multi-tasking ever more. Running faster, perhaps to stay in place, or perhaps, even to be shooting backwards on the treadmill.

HEFFNER: My grandson, about to go to college talks about multi-tasking.

KATZ: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: Do you believe that it is possible, really, humanly possible in terms of the present incarnation …

KATZ: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: To do all those things … successfully.

KATZ: Yes. Well, you add an important word … “successfully”.


KATZ: To the end of that sentence. I think it’s been well demonstrated in laboratory experiments that it’s physically impossible for people to hear two things at once. So, they’ve done tests where they’ve put headphones in people’s ears, they put one thing in one ear, one in another. And while people can switch back and forth very rapidly, they’re not able to actually hear two things at the same time.

So I think there are absolute physical limits that, that we will encounter in terms of multi-tasking and being able to do multiple things at the same time. But I think we’ll be much better at it in the future.

And I’ll just mention there are cultural differences in how people do this. So, for example, in Taiwan, it’s very clear that multi-tasking is a way of life. And that people are very good at it (COUGH FROM RDH) by and large.

Whereas I think for most people in the United States it’s still considered rude if you’re doing a little … palm carried game while you’re talking to somebody. Especially cross generations.

But within the generation, young people, much younger than your grandson, that’s not considered rude, that’s just considered like chewing gum while, while you’re with somebody. You know a lot of people think chewing gum is, is not so polite in company, but a lot of young people do it.

HEFFNER: Of course (cough), was it Lyndon Johnson (cough) … excuse me … was it Lyndon Johnson who said about Gerry Ford that he couldn’t walk down the street and chew gum at the same time?

KATZ: Yes.

HEFFNER: (Cough)

KATZ: Yes, I think that that comment shows that there’s a lot of individual variation, as we’d say in academia, in ability to multi-task. But, just for your viewers to say … he said he … Gerry Ford couldn’t walk down the street chewing gum … and walking at the same time … as I recall.

HEFFNER: Do you … you’re not as … it’s ridiculous to say you’re not as pessimistic as I am … you’re all that much younger … you take all of this in stride. The downside doesn’t really impact much upon your … upon you?

KATZ: Oh. Let’s see, I guess I’m … I view myself as a social scientist and my interest is trying to understand how people themselves understand these phenomenon, as opposed to my own judgment.

HEFFNER: Jim, that’s a cop-out.

KATZ: Well, I don’t think so. I think it’s part of my professional training. I think of the great sociologist Max Weber and that was always his ethos … to not, not be looking at things as a way to reflect one’s own interests and needs, but rather trying to understand a more profound way of people behaving.

But I would like to highlight though the sense of things changing and who people look at it. One student at Rutgers was asked … and this is a student who is 19 years old. “Do you listen to Podcasts?”. And he said, “Oh, no, that’s for people who are 20 years old.”

So … that, that’s so twenties … you know, people in their twenties. “We don’t … we young people don’t do that Podcast … and that’s old hat.” So things are changing really rapidly. But I think the fundamental questions of, of … what people do with these technologies and how they got along before them, really are, are the key. And so I would say, “Why is it that people do all these things?”

It’s not because they’re morally bankrupt or they don’t know the values as we know them, but rather because their needs to be socially popular, to fit in, to keep up to date, to know who they are … down deep … their real self … are the same needs that we perhaps always felt. But these technologies … perhaps elusively … perhaps substantively … give an opportunity to get those personal needs met.

HEFFNER: And not because it’s there?

KATZ: No. Because there are all kinds of other things that are there, too. And they pick on these that help in, in the specific areas of communication, social interaction, entertainment and of course, showing off to others. And I would say, “showing off to others” is a very important aspect for lots of people.

And … let me just take one step further and say we’re talking about a technology … the cell phone which is owned, or rented by about 3 billion … that’s with a “b” … three billion people out of a world population of about 6.2 billion people. So just about half the people in the world are cell phone users. So that’s … on the one hand speaks very impressively for the technology, but it also limits some of the generalizations that I’m making here. Namely that when you talk about 3 billion people, there are all kinds of uses, good, bad, indifferent.

So taking that back up one step about what I was saying about the young people. These are needs that they feel … to keep up to date … to be popular … and to indicate through the technology who they are. And so they … people buy these technologies … young people often because it reflects their personality. They don’t want to have … not only do they … must have a phone, but they cannot have an old clunky hand-me-down. They have to have a really good, exciting, dramatic looking technology and design … otherwise they’ll be teased. So, so it’s not even just the technology, but how it looks is very important to young people.

HEFFNER: have we ever been in a situation where there has been that …or this much emphasis upon such a new device?

KATZ: Well, let’s see … I’m … I remember reading about New Brunswick, New Jersey … in the 1880s and there was so much excitement about the bicycle. And the young men would want to have the newest and latest bicycles and ride up and down the main street there in New Brunswick, showing off to the ladies. And the news paper account at the time was decrying how these young men are not being very respectful, they’re showing off, they’re even falling off their bikes and getting hurt, all to show off in front of the girls.

So I think if you … once again you look historically over time, the same sorts of things … showing off in front of the girls, showing your own physical prowess, showing that you have the latest and greatest is something that has been with us a long time.

And the fact that we, as a society, and our young people are influenced by these same needs, I think speaks for the … the deep underlying cultural and maybe even human need that these technologies fulfill.

HEFFNER: The future. What’s on the horizon?

KATZ: Well, I think the clear trajectory is that you can do more and more things on your cell phone and that you can … that the cell phone becomes longer lived and smaller.

So the net result is that you’ll be able to, in a sense, take your living room, take your financial affairs, take your social network with you wherever you go. It’s not only a device to talk with people in an emergency or to coordinate how you’re going to meet somebody for dinner.

But it’s, it becomes an information resource and it becomes … really … I would say … like a huge … if you remember … when I went to school the janitor had a huge chain of keys. And with that … with those keys he could open up the projector room, he could open up the supply room, the cafeteria.

And in a sense, we’re taking all of that access to the resources of the world, shrinking it down into a comfortable convenient, semi-intelligent device … that we’ll not only carry with us … but either have it affixed on us or even, in some cases, go further, and maybe have it physically attached to us.

HEFFNER: What do you think about that? Do you think that’s likely?

KATZ: Ahemm, right now there’s something called RFID … radio frequency identification tags … that some people … not very many … have had surgically implanted in their hand or in their arm … so that they can get access to different parts of a company. So the RFID chip … interacts with some locking devices on the doors and will admit them if they have it in, in their possession or under their skin. And it’s very convenient.

There’s a lot of fear about this technology … of, of Big Brother taking over. Of us turning into machines, of losing our free will. All good questions. But it’s clear that when there’s a technologically sweet opportunity, like the mobile phone and I suppose like some of these visions that I’ve just sketched out … some people will find them irresistible.

HEFFNER: The, the old question of bowling alone and to the degree to which these devices and others have changed us …

KATZ: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: What about your comments in, in “Magic in the Air” … and in the other things you’ve written?

KATZ: Yes. Well, the thought there is that as suburbia has become the popular way of organizing our housing and social systems, the car has isolated us from social contact, the television absorbs all our free hours that our labor saving devices have given us … results not in new friendships and new connections, but actually has served to isolate us over time.

I think there’s a lot of evidence in support of the, the way in which our physical structures and our modes of mobility, namely the car, have effected and decreased our social interaction.

What I think is really exciting about the mobile phone is that in a sense, this gives us an opportunity to reinvigorate our personal contacts that have been closed off by television, by suburban living and by the car.

So in other words you can be in contact with your friends and family and give them the sort of ability to stay in touch with you and stay up to date.

Now I think one of the major criticisms that people level about mobile phone conversations is that they’re not deep and meaningful. That they’re not opportunities for people to connect soul to soul … “like the old days”.

I’m not sure what life was like in the way old days, but I’m not sure how many conversations people had that were deep and meaningful when they were face to face versus today.

Maybe they were. Maybe they weren’t. But what seems to be clear is that what people want is not so much these deep meaningful, soulful conversations as they just want to know that somebody’s thinking of them. They want to know that other people are reachable just in case of an emergency. They want to know that their social group is still active and that they’re still part of that social group.

So in other words, small, little bit sized bits of conversation are what a lot of people want. They don’t want long, meaningful, soulful connections. It’s just little … “Oh, so what’s new with you? Oh, not much. How about you? Oh, nothing new.” But that is very satisfying for a lot of people.

HEFFNER: Jim, do you think that the presence of these new devices makes that almost inevitable? That it will diminish the degree that we want … and I’ll use your vocabulary … what we want …

KATZ: HmmMmm.

HEFFNER: … by way of conversations and connections?

KATZ: I don’t have a good answer. I think that’s a very difficult question. The … I think there are people who always want that … and I would include myself in that category … they always want to have these deep meaningful conversations, but they also want to have a lot more. They want to, as I say, look at the different opportunities in the world and, and avail themselves of those opportunities.

Robert K. Merton, a very famous sociologist talked about opportunity structure. That is what, what can people do with their lives given the resources that are available.

Historically most people had almost no choices, if any choices in their life. Very poor miserable existences. As our material lives have gotten better, many more opportunities, many more potential things are available. And we see that even with television. Many more channels are available.

Do you think people are happier with more channels of television to watch? Are they happier with more houses that they could live in? More choices about cars and so forth?

I think the evidence so far is that there’s a point where you get not only diminishing returns, but people actually get confused, unhappy and let down by too many choices. They feel, “Well, even though I’m watching 300 channels and scanning 300 channels … if I had 500 I could see even more.” And they want those 500. But how many hours are there in a day to watch television? No new hours are produced in the day, so people by more choice of TV stations, more choice of houses, more choice of interactional opportunities get more frustrated rather than more satisfied.

So I think you’ve put your finger on a very important point about what it is that people want in their communication. And as I suggested, they want to be part of a network. They want to be thought of, they want to be in touch. And to a degree I think they want to have some meaningful conversations, but there’s always … there’s always that other possibility that’s lurking out there … maybe corroding their, their soul a little bit.

And I’ll give you an example of call waiting. A lot of people find call waiting to be a very irritating service. Why? Because they’re talking to somebody and there’s often another call and who is that? What do they want? Who are they going to talk to? Are they going to stay on the line, or are they going to come back … “oops, there could be something even better going on on that other line, let me put you on hold … you wait … I’m going to talk to that other person.” Then they’ll say, “oops, its even better, I’ll call you back later.”

Or … well they weren’t as good as you are, so I’m going to stick with you. Those sorts of social comparisons that go on all the time are made manifest with our mobile phone and with our technology like call waiting, for example.

HEFFNER: Now, what is indicated, what do we know in terms of social science research about the effect, the crazy making quality of that … of those choices.

KATZ: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: Do we know anything?

KATZ: Well, there certainly are …

HEFFNER: The happiness business.

KATZ: Yes. Yes. I think there are things like email addiction. Or instant message addiction which take place. Which go really to the heart of this because we know that the most powerful form of behavioral reinforcement, and this was discovered by studying pigeons, for example …pecking.

What can you do to get a pigeon to peck at a bar, to peck the most? If, if you … if you give it a little pellet after every three pecks …will it peck a lot or if you shock it if it doesn’t peck, it’ll peck a lot. Or what’s the pattern that will get you the most pecking of that pigeon on the bar. And that’s called random reinforcement.

Where the pigeon doesn’t know how many pecks it’s going to get … have to give in order to get that extra pellet. Well, email works the same way. You don’t know when you’re going to get a valuable message via email versus all the not very important or even spammy like email messages. So that kind of opportunity provided by technology produces what could be loosely called addictive behavior or certain compulsive behavior. And that’s why so many people spend so much time with their email, they never know when that next important message is going to come.

So, as to your point, I would say we, we do find that these technologies do sort of get inside of us and change us in terms of who we are and how we look at the world.

HEFFNER: Now, you won’t answer this question, but my question obviously is …for the good or for the bad?

KATZ: Well, I think you can speak on the material terms. That would be very easy. Materially, lots of people’s lives have been saved because of the cell phone. Very few people’s lives have been forfeited … although some have been … because of the cell phone.

HEFFNER: Talking on the telephone in the car?

KATZ: Well coordinating criminal activities, for example. So, a lot of people …


KATZ: … have, have been rescued from snow banks or mountain tops or car accidents than have been victims of conspiracies. Although even the 9/11 conspirators presumably used cell phones to help coordinate their, their horrible attack on the United States.

But be that … so I can, I can say that there are billions of dollars spent on the cell phone because people find it so useful. So I, I think there’s very little, very little resistance to the cell phone.

And quite the contrary, people love having it. I, I quoted the figure of 3 billion people worldwide, from all social classes, all parts of the world and even extremely poor people when they scrape together just a little bit of money … one of the first things they try to buy is a cell phone because it transforms their life for the better.

And I’ll just mention in the developing countries where people used to have to walk for hours or even days to look for a job and to find out how a relative is doing … now have saved all that effort just by a quick text message. So, I think unquestionably from a material viewpoint, the cell phone is enormously beneficial for society. And for individual lives.

In terms of … the question as to our souls or the meaning that these things have and how that affects these deep forms of social interaction, I would say the, the evidence is only very slight that they have been detrimental. So I, I don’t know how many deep meaningful conversations have been thwarted because of the cell phone. Although, once again, looking at history I’m … I recall a little short story by Mark Twain, where a woman is entertaining a gentleman, the gentleman is about to ask, ask for her hand in marriage, but she gets a phone call … and this was shortly after the phone was invented … and it’s another gallant man asking for her hand and she accepts the invitation to get married over the telephone instead of over … from the man sitting there. And I’ll …

HEFFNER: A wonderful commercial.

KATZ: … I’ll just … add one little note and that is that also that he wished that the person who invented the telephone would burn in hell.

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

KATZ: Goes the story

HEFFNER: You know I’ve enjoyed talking to you so much today, Professor Katz. I remain a Luddite, but I’m delighted to have your very research minded approval bestowed upon modern technology. Come back again.

KATZ: Thank you. Pleasure to be here.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. For transcripts of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.