Society / Technology

Technology: Lonely Bubble or Networked Nirvana?

Two distant people sitting in a meadow

courtesy flickr/.ash

We have more communication options today than ever before.  For most of human history, there were a grand total of two: speak in person, or write on something.  Today, you could text, Skype, IM, email, Facebook, and call half a dozen people all around the world within seconds, from a mobile phone in the middle of nowhere.

Based purely on accessibility, then, you’d expect we would be the most socially connected society ever.  But you’ve almost certainly heard the counter-argument:  “We’re losing an essential part of human interaction to this sea of screens.”  Both sentiments are common, but which one is true?  The argument’s been raging for years.  Today, I’ll put my own spin on it, and offer you an out-of-the-box answer for your consideration.

The Debate

“In an information society, the smart person will be the one who can shut out all the distractions.” – Robin Raskin, media consultant

You’ve seen this before: a group of students, clustered together in a corner booth, mostly buried in their iPhones, iPads, or laptops.  They’re texting, they’re IMing, they’re posting to a social network about where they are, but they’re not talking to each other.  You can find similar stories all over the place (mostly on the internet, ironically).  As one example, here’s a NYTimes article that delves into a high school in California and finds some teens texting a mind-blowing 27,000 times a month.  No surprise that their schoolwork suffers, and it’s not much of a leap to guess their in-person interactions aren’t very focused either.

On the other side of the argument, there’s the Pew Internet & American Life survey.  Just over 2 years ago, it surveyed thousands of Americans and found that frequent users of cell phones and social networking were actually more likely to be sociable.  Their networks were both larger and more diverse, and they stayed more connected to their communities.

What’s Really Going On?

Are our vital social connections diving, or thriving?  I think the answer’s a little bit of both, and here’s a helpful framework.  For purposes of this discussion, there are 3 types of relationships:

  1. People you see in person.  Friends, colleagues, community members, family.
  2. People you know, but don’t see.  A friend who lives abroad, for example.
  3. People you don’t know in “real life” at all.  A mutual contact via Linked In, say.

The shift to mobile and social networking technologies affects these relationships in different ways.  The anecdotes described in the article above suggest that type #1, in-person relationships, is most likely to suffer.  The second group, however, should actually be able to stay more connected than before.   As one example, I know a couple who had to live on opposite coasts for several years, and used Skype on a near-constant basis.  It’s not as ideal as being together, but it’s leaps and bounds better than what was possible ten years ago.  As for the third type, well, suffice to say most of those relationships wouldn’t even exist without the appropriatetechnology.

So it’s totally plausible that the number, depth and frequency of our social interactions might be improving, even as the quality of our in-person relationships drops.

Why are in-person relationships worth saving?

Three reasons come to mind:

  • Empathy depends on eye contact
  • Subtlety depends on body language
  • Friendship depends on shared experience

If more and more of our important relationships are mediated by a screen, we’re going to lose out on all of these.

Can technology save us from itself?

Looking at the list above, it occurs to me that it’s the screen keeping us apart, not technology per se.  If so, the ultimate solution comes down to waiting for the future.   As the barriers between “technology” and “the real world” vanish, so too will their battle for your attention.  Tiny text-based communications are distracting, and a poor substitute for real-life interaction, but they will soon go the way of 8-tracks and telegrams.

As we’ve discussed here, near-field chips, the internet of things and augmented reality are already transplanting our digital interactions directly into the real world.  Your screen can’t distract you from the world, if your screen is the world.  Likewise, the people who are physically near you will be able to share your digital experience in the same way they share your real-world experiences.  The difference is analogous to driving a car: talking to someone on a cell phone is dangerously distracting, but talking to someone in the passenger seat is not.

Finally, looking even further out, any technology that could sufficiently transmit eye contact, body language, and shared experiences – say, full-body holograms – would be so smoothly integrated with real life as to properly simulate an “in-person” experience with anyone, even with people who aren’t physically present.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.   Did I hit the nail on the head, or is my optimism wildly overblown?  Speak up in the comments below.

Don’t Miss:

Kat’s recent piece on striking a balance between on-line and off-line living.

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