Podcast: Pandemic reshaping our relationships

Fu Rong Ariel Peng
With the development of virtual realities and other novelties seeking to amaze us, it almost seemed inevitable that we would grow dependent upon technology.
Fu Rong Ariel Peng

Podcast EP22

Podcast: Pandemic reshaping our relationships

Adam Alter is a marketing professor at New York University's Stern School of Business, and is also affiliated with the university's Psychology Department. Born in South Africa, Alter studied psychology and law in Australia before getting his PhD in psychology at Princeton University. He has written for several publications including The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Washington Post and The Atlantic.

With the development of virtual realities and other novelties seeking to amaze us, it almost seemed inevitable that we would grow dependent upon technology.

And the pandemic didn't made it easier to for those who wish for a more retro lifestyle.

Asked how he managed to not lose himself in screens during the pandemic, Professor of marketing at New York University's Stern School of Business Adam Alter said we should first imagine the pandemic in the 1950s.

"People were sitting inside all day doing almost nothing. They couldn't connect to anyone outside, and communication was relatively basic," he says.

"So we are lucky to have screens, as they have made it possible to work and to connect to those who we love but couldn't see in person.

"The fact that we can't switch them off is a problem. Ultimately it's better to have them than not during the pandemic, doing more good for us than it normally would, though it does underscore how relying we are on them."

Continuing from our last conversation, Alter discussed his first book "Drunk Tank Pink (2013)" and his upcoming book "Escape Velocity," while shedding more light on the impact that technology and other environmental influences have on people and the younger generation.

Leading us to the question of how to cultivate creativity, Alter said, "Creativity is critical in helping us from being stuck, especially in a time when so many of us are not living our most desirable way, it's hard to be creative when you don't feel happy the whole time. And when we become stuck, it feels to us like some big, personal affront. We question how it happens, how terrible it feels, and it feels like you're unique, but it's an absolutely universal experience.

Alter spoke to Shanghai Daily on Zoom. The following are excerpts from the interview:

Podcast: Pandemic reshaping our relationships

Q: The term "metaverse" seems to be mentioned more often in recent years. Does this mean that we will be living both in the virtual world as well as the physical world in the future?

A: The term "metaverse" is not exactly new. I don't think it's especially interesting either. We've had second lives for decades, Mindcraft and other versions of these metaverse ideas floating around, a lot of virtual and augmented realties and universes.

However, the idea of the metaverse is an extension in its fully formed state once AI technology is sufficiently sophisticated, once the process can handle the speed of what we are trying to do, and once we have all the building blocks and the infrastructures in place.

You can decide who of five people in history you'd like to have dinner with, where you would most like to be right now – I'd like to be on a beach in Greece, to smell the ocean and taste the food.

Once we can get all the five senses activated like that, having a haptic (sense of feeling) suit so you'll feel the breeze on your body ... Those kinds of metaverses are very compelling, and especially hard for us to resist, because if you think that phones are hard to resist, then imagine dealing with some world that's exactly what you want: You put on some goggles and suddenly you are really there, and how much that'll create distance between people is potentially worrying. But we aren't anywhere near that level of technology yet.

Q: So you do think it's totally possible to make real friends online?

A: Absolutely. Friends who play together online can form pretty solid friendships that exist purely online, although this doesn't happen much on Facebook because it's a little more distant.

Let's say people who have played together in a gild on a massive multi-player game like World of Warcraft. It does lack some of the ingredients that we have traditionally thought of as a face-to-face friendship. It's like when I'm looking at people through a screen, we don't actually have eye contact: I'm not actually looking into your eyes, and if I look this way, you don't know what I'm looking at; we don't share the same universe.

But if we are in the same virtual universe and looking at the same thing, that brings us one step closer. It is valuable to give someone a hug and actually look at them as you speak, but I don't think that friendship requires people to be in the same place. And it is diverse, like how people have been writing letters and making pen pals – which they did long before computers.

Q: "Be somewhere you don't have access to time, somewhere you don't know what year it is," you said this in the interview on NPR. Could you explain why losing ourselves in time is good for us?

A: Living in this era, we are constantly reminded of what year it is, what time period we are in. Right now, I'm looking at a screen, a camera ... all sorts of things that tell me it's the 21st Century. I cannot escape the "here and now."

There's something beneficial of a timeless experience, one where you needn't tell what year it is based on what your eyes or senses are telling you. You don't hear a car horn honking, smell what is modern, or see what is associated with a very built-up city. And if you think about the things that are timeless, they include a lot of the natural experiences. Thousands of years ago, people were standing next to a river and listening to the water rustling, the wind, through leaves on a tree, the sounds of the ocean … It's been therapeutic to people for thousands of years, and hopefully it'll continue to be for many thousands more. The things that enrich our brains deeply are the ones that we have been doing when our brains were forming the way they are now through evolution.

Q: Some of your research explores the relationship between the floor levels of a building in Manhattan and the noise level as well as access to the view. How can people who live in cities have a peace of mind when it gets really loud while having limited access to greenery?

A: The study you mentioned was done in three or four big apartment buildings that sat above the I-95, the biggest highway going through New York. At the bottom of the buildings the noise was incredibly loud, while it was a lower hum at the top. What the research found was that being very near the bottom affected the development of the kids' ability to hear: They took longer to learn how to read because they weren't hearing the sounds, like the subtle differences between b as in bear versus p as in pear. Although people can get used to the noise, as we're incredibly resilient, and I'm not suggesting that everyone move away from the city, just try to cultivate some time away to get somewhere else.

You can put on noise-cancelling headphones, but then it's just you in this little world with the hum of the noise-cancelling headphones. You can isolate yourself from the noise, but you also isolate yourself from other people. So what you can do is make it a priority that maybe once a month spend time in natural environments. You can also get a small water fountain, tiny little thing, can be inexpensive, and put it on your mantel, or buy a little tree, something that you can water, some leaves and flowers. I have some roses – even little things matter.

Q: Now that you have kids, how do you plan to engage them with screens?

A: I have spoken to hundreds of parents who absolutely struggle with this issue. I have a 5-year-old son and a 4-year-old daughter, young enough for me to decide what screens they get access to. But when they're teenagers and older, it'll become increasingly difficult, especially when all their friends will have that stuff.

It's terrible to force them into being isolated from others. The most important thing that a parent can do is to understand what it is that kids are getting from screens.

So if your child is using an App, try to use it yourself. Once you understand it, you can actually have a proper conversation about it as equals instead of as a parent who comes in and disciplines your kids about something.

However, when kids are young, you also want to set boundaries. There isn't an easy solution: We are up against massive companies that are very smart, have access to huge amounts of data, and know exactly the right buttons to push.

If adults are struggling with this, imagine what it's like with kids who don't have the same self control resources. So I think we need to have a little bit of empathy for them, right?

Q: One of the strategies you've mentioned before is to always "tether the virtual world with the physical world," Why do you mean?

A: This idea is for small kids: When they are exposed to screens, they think of the screen as a completely different universe; they don't realize that they're just watching a TV show that doesn't happen to be in the same world as they're normally in. That's imagination, and it leads to the development of brain functions and cognitive capacities. But you need to teach them that it is an extension of the world that we're in now. Otherwise, I think there's a longing for that world that takes hold, and that's when kids get that urgent sense of escaping this world.

If you say to them: "If we're watching a show that teaches you about the color red. Where else does that color red exist? Now let's go find the color red here. What do you see in the room that's red?" So it's a good way of grounding them in the real world and showing them the boundaries between these worlds.

Podcast: Pandemic reshaping our relationships

Q: What does "Drunk Tank Pink" mean?

A: The title of the book is a cue can shape how we think, feel, and behave in a way that I think is surprising to people.

Drunk tank pink is this bright, bubble gum shade of pink that researchers used to paint the inside of jail cells and even classrooms. They found that this shade pacified people. So if you had a prisoner and you put them in there, they became calmer. If you brought children who weren't behaving into this room, they became better behaved. It happens pretty fast.

Therefore, the book is about how screens and the world around us shape us. Not just screens, but all sorts of cues in the world around us shape us, how we think, feel and behave.

Q: What are your strategies for calming down?

A: Breathing very deeply is a big one for me. If there's something that I'm specifically anxious about, I imagine it shrinking, getting really small. It's a technique that a lot of people use.

For example, you don't like flying but the plane you're on now is bumping around. You can imagine that your fear is like a person standing next to you in the aisle on the plane, and that person shrinking down, becoming teeny tiny – that's your fear getting smaller. And you can just look at them and say, that's not scary.

This actually works surprisingly well for a lot of people. A lot of it is what goes on in your mind's eye.

I also like to do a crossword. I think of the gap between being fully awake and being asleep – something like a crossword or a word puzzle is soothing to me, though some people find it completely boring.

Sometimes I'll read a book as well. Sometimes, it's meditation. I find that doing something that makes me a little tired is generally more effective for me.

Q: Any plans for the rest of the year? New books or new research?

A: Yes. I'm writing my third book. Its working title is "Unstuck (now called Escape Velocity)." It's about how so many of us get stuck in so many different ways.

We get stuck professionally. We get stuck in our relationships. We get stuck in exercise, in art, in sports ... in every imaginable pursuit. One of the things I found is that any success story you see in business, art, sports, education, or science, a person had a point earlier on when they or the organization was completely stuck. You don't succeed without it.

So this book is a manual, an attempt to understand what it is that gets us unstuck, and how we move through this. Is there a set of techniques that we can use or things we should keep in mind? I don't think there's been a book written quite on that topic before. I believe the rights have been sold in China.

Special Reports