As i travel wilstenngly to a conference in the USA that embraces the digital age and advocates the insights that can be generated by the battery of digital kit we all now possess, it might be rather perverse to dwell on a familiar rant, that the digital age is reducing our opportunity to indulge in free form interaction, and restricting a whole load of benefits to human relationships.
>> The rant would go… there was a time not so long ago when you would sit next to someone on a plane who you may or more likely may not ever see or speak to again and yet for at least that short time prior to take off, and landing, you would be quite likely to amuse each other with a little chat, two strangers thrust together on a journey to somewhere, possibly inane but often interesting (after all, you don’t have to talk throughout the whole journey…). Yet now, those moments of electronics-free life have been compromised by the right to ‘use but make sure all devices are in Flight mode’. You can now travel from home to the other side of the world without turning off your choice of listening material. Company unnoticed. Scenery change a million miles apart.
>> And, if the rant were to continue, it would be that wherever we now roam or even just wait, it’s most often a case of heads down. Devices on. Don’t look up. Hurry along.
This digitally-driven era of mute communications and bare acknowledgements may come as a relief for those who found (or find) (increasingly) human interaction awkward, tedious even, but doesn’t anyone want to know what other people are thinking or feeling anymore – really thinking or feeling that is, not just what a random Status Update may declare? Certainly to international qualitative researchers like us it is very frustrating – both on a personal level, as we are arguably some of the most curious folk around, but also on a work level as it exposes how in this day and age it is possible to miss out on some useful observation and listening.
This is probably why it was really interesting to read the view of academic historian Theodore Zelding in The Sunday Times* last weekend, headlined – either disappointingly or enticingly – “Turn that selfie stick on your neighbour, and live”. His viewpoint intellectually develops the life theme that “fulfilment comes from curiosity about others” and that the obsession with the long arm selfie ensures exactly the reverse.
He referred to his new book, “The Hidden Pleasures of Life”, “devoted to addressing the dissatisfactions of modern life…”. We couldn’t agree more with his views, and felt that here was an indirect supporter vindicating the premise of good old fashioned qualitative research. Zelding likes to get people talking about how they perceive themselves, what they want to achieve with their life, ie. the things that really matter”, and that “by focusing on self and selfies, we will never really be appreciated, because to get real appreciation, you first have to appreciate others”.*For anyone with access to the Times : full article here.
In this technologically-accelerated decade, we’ve also seen many changes in how research is conducted, with digital and online being the area that has grown the most; of course this has its benefits such as cost and logistics, with more access to the respondent in their own home, and many consumers nowadays feeling more comfortable behind a screen than behind a 2-way mirror, but can it always deliver valuable results? We would argue that there is a place for both, but that hard and deep qualitative thinking on top of the digital surveys can still yield the best results, and is anyway infinitely more interesting. Speaking to people face to face, indulging in pure human interaction, accompanying people in their day to day activities, observing and passively participating in their lives, we are giving people the chance to tell us what they are really thinking, and not what they think they should be thinking because of how it may be perceived, or Liked, or Commented on in one medium or other.
I am interested to see how much my attitudes are going to change in one week’s time, post-conference, so watch this space! For now, this self-described digital dipper is going to see who she can watch, listen to, and meet.