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In the years leading up to and following World War II there was a gradual shift toward modernity. Technology had been marching ahead for more than 50 years — the invention of the automobile, airplane, electricity, the light bulb, telegraph, and telephone, there was even talk of flying to the moon, and America was ready to reap the benefits. It was an era of futuristic fantasies observed through rose-colored glasses.

Colonizing space was a theme of comic books and radio shows like Flash Gordon. In 1938 Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of “War of the Worlds,” HG Wells’ sci-fi novel, set off panic as rumors of a Martian invasion swept through some communities, multiplied by the sheer force of word-of-mouth distortions. The theme of the 1939 World’s Fair was “The World of Tomorrow” and featured a special exhibit called “Futurama,” envisioning earth 20 years ahead. In the span of two decades — from the 1930s to 1950s — airplanes like the Lockheed Vega that Amelia Earhart flew went from being constructed of little more than wood, glue and bailing wire to sleek steel jets. Television was replacing radio as America’s favorite entertainment choice; the acoustic big band swing era gave way to electric rock ‘n roll; medical advancements yielded a cure for polio; and psychologist BF Skinner postulated that people could be conditioned into creating social utopia.

The telephone, the first efficient person-to-person mode of communication, had perhaps the most profound cultural impact. After it was invented in the late 19th century, it took more than 50 years for it to spread to half of American households. As it worked itself into the fabric of American life, many parents were afraid that children would stop going outside to play with friends and instead stay inside yakking.

Today these fears seem quaint. While teenagers have been known to monopolize the family phone, it has acted more as a social life amplifier, not as a replacement for face-to-face encounters (while also being a boon to business). Nevertheless, it hasn’t prevented many well-meaning people from today to bemoan the impact of the telephone’s technological offspring. I speak, of course, of the mobile or smart phone.

According to some, texting is ruining the art of conversationromance, and social skillsdestroying student grammar,  killing the English languageteaching kids to be rude, and may even be harming our health. Four years ago a Wall Street Journal article wondered if teen texting would replace talking while two years ago TV pundit Jack Cafferty asked if technology was replacing social interactions and if so at what cost? It obliterates family time and undermines relationships. One psychologist asks: Is texting making us stupid? Meanwhile, blog posts abound on coping with “smartphone addiction.”

I mention all this because The New York Times magazine recently published a piece on the results of a study on public places that found that instead of driving us apart, technology is actually bringing people together.

Starting in 2008 Keith Hampton, a professor at Rutgers, set up video cameras at several public spaces in New York, including Bryant Park and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. One of his aims was to observe how people interact in the age of the mobile phone, and after amassing thousands of hours of footage, which he compared to footage taken in the 1970s, what he and his team of researchers observed turns out to be completely counter-intuitive.

For example, mobile-phone use, which included texting and using apps, was far lower than he expected, and it did not interfere with social interactions.

From the article (emphasis mine):

On the steps of the Met, only 3 percent of adults captured in all the samples were on their phones. It was highest at the northwest corner of Bryant Park, where the figure was 10 percent. More important, according to Hampton, was the fact that mobile-phone users tended to be alone, not in groups. People on the phone were not ignoring lunch partners or interrupting strolls with their lovers; rather, phone use seemed to be a way to pass the time while waiting to meet up with someone, or unwinding during a solo lunch break. Of course, there’s still the psychic toll, which we all know, of feeling tethered to your phone — even while relaxing at the park. But that’s a personal cost. From what Hampton could tell, the phones weren’t nearly as hard on our relationships as many suspect.

Sure, too many of us wander the streets and sidewalks of New York, our heads buried in our  screens. A Staten Island teen once fell into an open manhole while she was texting. But is it really that bad?

Hampton told the writer of the story, who he met at Bryant Park at a cafe, that the answer is no. He reminded that his research shows that in the busiest public spaces, only about 3 percent are on mobile phones on any given moment, “yet,” he says, “how many times have you seen a story that says, ‘People on cellphones in public spaces is rude, it’s creating all sorts of problems, people are walking into traffic.’ I mean, we really have a strong sense that it’s everywhere.”

It seems, as with the dire  warnings accompanying the telephone, fears of smartphones destroying our ability to socialize are also overblown. So keep on texting and checking email on the fly, but be sure to look both ways before crossing the street.

[Image via Thinkstock]