I learned of this experiment from a book by Danish philosopher Peter Kemp called “The Irreplaceable – a Technology Ethics” (“Det Uerstattelige – En Teknologi-Etik”) about the relationship between Man and Technology. For some reason I can find no information on the experiment anywhere on the web, so here goes.
The experiment, which was conducted in the early 1980’s under the name “Lousi-Bird”, was arranged by the Danish Post and Telegraph (“Post- og Telegrafvæsenet”), Copenhagen’s Telephone Company (“Københavns Telefonselskab”) and the Danish State Radio (“Danmarks Radio”). The purpose was to prove that information technology could enable a family of five to remain at home 24 hours a day.
The father of the family was manager of an IT company, so the family ought to be familiar with computers and technology. The mother worked as an architect at the Danish state’s research institute for building technology (Statens Byggeforskningsinstitut). There were three children; two girls of 13 and 11 and a boy of 5. The experiment was set to last for two weeks.
For the purpose of the experiment, all of the latest technology was installed in their house, enabling the parents to communicate with their colleagues at work. The two girls could study from home and the young boy was given computer games to keep him busy. Of course all the technology was hopelessly primitive compared to what we have in 2012 but I believe the results today would be the same.
The boy, aged five, could only be kept home for one week before he became tired of the games and demanded to be sent back to his friends in kindergarten. The two girls held out for two weeks, staying home from school and studying at home while communicating with their teachers remotely, but both missed the direct contact with their classmates and teachers and lost motivation for school work. As soon as they knew their friends were out of school, they rushed out to be with them. The 11-year old temporarily lost her ability to tell fantastic stories.
The father found that he missed the social contact and informal smalltalk which enabled him to solve small problems before they escalated. The computer conference system, he found, made everything look equally important and couldn’t be used for informal contact with an employee when somebody might be looking over that employee’s shoulder. The video conference system was only useful in some situations where a meeting was strictly structured and regulated.
The mother also found that she missed the informal contact with her colleagues, including chance meetings in the hallways that enabled her to arrange meetings. Now she had to use the telephone which made her feel that she forced herself on others. And she missed her colleagues’ informal reactions when they cooperated on texts.
The surveillance equipment that was installed in the living room was a disaster. After a disagreement nobody wanted to rerun the tapes to find out “Who started it” – once everybody were friends again there was no reason to start over again! And if the family had friends visiting, they would invariably ask for the system to be turned off!
The pagers seemed misplaced and the children found them intrusive – as if you couldn’t talk about things any longer.
The one positive thing the family learned was that having a TV set in the kitchen was a success. It wasn’t as intrusive as in the living room – you could glance at the screen when something seemed interesting but you didn’t have to concentrate it all the time.
The report talked about the “technological shortcomings” of the experiment and warned against “hasty conclusions”. But it was clear that the social contact deteriorates when computers are introduced as links between people.
And my conclusion is this: The Internet, blogs, Facebook, and other types of computer-aided communication are great for meeting and staying in touch with people we would otherwise never know or meet. But it is not a replacement for, you know, actually MEETING people face to face! 😉