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Akst: Look me in the eye when you say that

Published: Friday, Aug. 9, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

Two contradictory articles in Sunday’s Chicago Tribune caught my eye.

Not that it’s a big deal to find contradictory information in one publication, but these articles struck a nerve. The optic nerve.

Both were in the business section. One, cleverly titled “Vision test,” was about the importance of eye contact in a job interview.

“ ‘Strong eye contact during an interview can make or break your chances of getting the job,’ says career expert Allison Hemming,” the article said.

The reason is because “effective eye contact with the interviewer conveys confidence, enthusiasm and trust. Without it, you may come across as someone uninterested in the position.”

The other was about Google’s new “Glass.” If you’re not techie and believe resistance isn’t futile (I really hope you get that joke), let me explain.

Glass is a pair of eye-glasses with a teeny, powerful, voice-activated computer that surfs the Internet, shoots photos and video, performs Google searches, and many other tasks.

Glass is not on the market yet, but people are paying $1,500 to test it. Glass is stylish, but – there’s no other way to say this – it looks like something straight out of “Star Trek.”

I’m too cheap and uncool for Glass, but I did watch the promotional videos. If it works as well as it seems, Glass is truly a stunning evolution: hands-free, intuitive, interactive computing and imaging so easy, small and light that one could almost say it’s machine free.

But I have at least three problems with Glass.

1. As Jerry Irvine, chief information officer for a Schaumburg technology firm, notes in the Tribune article, there are serious privacy concerns, “since no password or PIN is required. If criminals were to steal your Glass, they would have access to all of the information you have stored on your Glass, which is linked to your Google+ account and to your smartphone.”

2. Some scientists (like Daniel J. Simons, a professor of psychology and advertising at the University of Illinois) are concerned that Glass is dangerous. Quoted in a May article in the U.K.’s Daily Mail, Simons said Glass may “inadvertently disrupt a crucial cognitive capacity, with potentially dangerous consequences.” Further, “when the mind is engaged, wearers could fail to see something that would otherwise be utterly obvious.”

Problem 3 has me the most worried. Basically, I fear that if Google Glass catches on the way Google did, we’ll see each other even less.

This isn’t paranoid science fiction. Even without Glass, meaningful eye contact among college students (tomorrow’s workforce) is becoming scarcer. I’m watching this trend.

Maybe that’s not such a huge deal for reclusive professions, but my profession is about human interaction, and a signpost of human interaction is eye contact.

For many college students, looking people in the eye is more of a challenge than ever. Why? Because many students would rather interact with their devices.

As I talk about approachability, eye contact, interpersonal communication, etc., I stroll around the room, establishing and maintaining eye contact with students who are watching.

Several aren’t watching. They’re absorbed by their phones so completely that when I say something like, “So, you need to interact with people, which is a challenge, because many of you would rather interact with your phones,” it’s easy to find a student who’s interacting with a phone and (gently) pluck it from his/her hand.

That produces chuckles, but the alarming part is that the “pluckee” has no real idea what was happening around him/her.

That doesn’t bode well for human interaction, or journalism.

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. You can reach him at jasondakst@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter (@jasonakst).

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