Is Office Headphone Culture Keeping People Lonely?

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Headphones and ear buds are commonplace in workplaces around the world these days. People will listen to their music when they can but they also use them to tune out their co-workers, and yet still communicate with them online.

According to Sherry Turkle, a psychologist and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), “We’re getting used to a new way of being alone together.”

Turkle recently gave a TED talk called “Connected, but Alone?” during which she expressed concern that technology is letting us hide from one another.

“People can’t get enough of each other – if and only if they can have each other at a distance, in amounts they can control,” Turkle said. This is what she refers to as the ‘Goldilocks effect’: “Not too close, not too far, just right.”

Are people really lonely though? There isn’t sufficient evidence either way to give a clear answer. Those who believe we’re keeping ourselves isolated will cite research that has linked Facebook to loneliness and depression, but on the other side of the coin there is a case study from New York University where an internal blog at a company actually increased productivity and sparked conversation amongst employees.

The Internet is the New Water Cooler

Judith Donath, a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society is one person who isn’t surprised by this new culture. She says it makes sense that the internet has replaced the water cooler.

Taking this into account, Donath is working on ways to make working online more social. Her research includes experiments into things like making online searches and views public so that an entire work team could see what one colleague is doing and effectively making everyone feel less isolated.

With conflicting evidence and no clear answers, it’s a tricky world out there for employers: Should they ban social media? Should they promote socialising in the workplace or leave people to hide in their digital worlds? Or is Donath’s approach one to think about in the future? Only time will give us the answers to all these questions.

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