Arts & Entertainment Editor
Photo by Andrea Rodriguez
I had a terrible nightmare the other night. Instead of meeting for a quick cup of coffee, my friend and I spent 30 minutes texting back and forth about our day. After that, instead of going in to talk to my professor during his office hours, I emailed him from home with my question. Because of this, he never got to know who I was, even though he would have been a great source for a letter of recommendation if he had. I ignored a cute guy at the bus stop asking me the time because I was busy responding to a text. And I spent far too much time on Facebook trying to catch up with my 1000+ “friends,” most of whom I rarely see, and whose meaning sadly seems to dispel even more as the sheer number of “connections” I’ve made grows.
Oh wait, that wasn’t a dream. This technological detachment is becoming today’s reality.
Little by little, Internet and mobile technology seems to be subtly destroying the meaningfulness of interactions we have with others, disconnecting us from the world around us, and leading to an imminent sense of isolation in today’s society. Instead of spending time in person with friends, we just call, text or instant message them. It may seem simpler, but we ultimately end up seeing our friends face to face a lot less. Ten texts can’t even begin to equal an hour spent chatting with a friend over lunch. And a smiley-face emoticon is cute, but it could never replace the ear-splitting grin and smiling eyes of one of your best friends. Face time is important, people. We need to see each other.
This doesn’t just apply to our friends; it applies to the world around us. It should come as no surprise that face-to-face interaction is proven by studies to comfort us and provide us with some important sense of well-being, whether it’s with friends or friendly cashiers in the checkout line of Albertson’s. That’s actually the motivation behind Albertson’s decision last year to take all of the self-checkout lanes out of its stores: an eerie lack of human contact.
There’s something intangibly real and valuable about talking with someone face to face. This is significant for friends, partners, potential employers, and other recurring people that make up your everyday world. That person becomes an important existing human connection, not just someone whose disembodied text voice pops up on your cell phone, iPad or computer screen.
It seems we have more extended connections than ever in this digital world, which can be great for networking, if it’s used right. The sad fact of the matter is that most of us don’t. It’s too hard to keep up with 1000 friends, let alone 200. At that point, do we even remember their names? We need to start prizing the meaning of quality in our connections, not sheer quantity.
One of my best friends from my hometown has 2,241 Facebook friends. Sure, her posts get a ton of feedback, but when I asked her about the quality of those relationships, she said to me that she really has few friends that she can trust and spend time with happily. Using a strange conundrum like this as a constructive example, we should consider pruning our rampant online connections at the very least.
Past evolutionary psychology research by British anthropologist and psychologist Robin Dunbar has revealed that people are actually limited to a certain number of stable, supportive connections with others in their social network: roughly 150. Furthermore, recent follow-up research by Cornell University’s Bruno Goncalves used Twitter data to show that despite the current ability to connect with vast amounts of people via the Internet, a person can still only truly maintain a friendship with a maximum of 100 to 200 real friends in their social network.
While technology has allowed us some means of social connection that would have never been possible before, and has allowed us to maintain long-distance friendships that would have otherwise probably fallen by the wayside, the fact remains that it is causing ourselves to spread ourselves too thin, as well as slowly ruining the quality of social interaction that we all need as human beings.
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So what are we doing with 3000 friends on the Internet? Why are we texting all the time? Seems like a big waste of time to me. Let’s spend more time together with our friends. Let’s make the relationships that count last, and not rely on technology to do the job for us.
Two years ago, I started using the Kindle app on my iPad to read those big heavy biographies and novels that I had been lugging around the world. I still wasn’t using it to read books I might reference in my writing, but nonetheless I was glad to discover, by chance, the underline function. While immersed in Pico Iyer’s The Art of Stillness, underlining as I read, I was completely unnerved when a message popped up to announce: “You are the 123rd user to underline this same passage.”
Shocked by this intrusion, I threw the iPad onto the bed and nearly out the window. A sickening feeling came over me. Then I became afraid. Someone was reading over my shoulder. Not a person, but a Program, calculating what I found most important in the text. Was I supposed to feel validated (or banal) to learn that a passage I noted many others also liked? Or was this data only for some marketing strategy?
The idea of surveillance, in the abstract, has not bothered me as much as it perhaps should. I have acclimated to the notion that everything we do is findable, knowable and marketable—forever—except, I believed, our deepest thoughts, which is why the intrusion on my contemplative reading affected me so profoundly. Reading is my refuge from the world, and now it too had been invaded.
A 2011 article I read recently conjectured that, in the past, we were “private by default and public by effort.” At one time it was difficult to get information about other people and just as difficult to put information about ourselves out into the world. Now, we are public by default and private by effort. But how much exertion does it take to keep a sense of inviolability?
We can be found most anywhere in the world at any time, through our own devices (pun intended). The intrusion is ubiquitous and omnivorous.
Most of us are addicted to these systems of connection. That’s what humans do: we get addicted to the things we create. People expect an answer, and they expect it now. At times the ability to work depends on this immediate access. We have internalized these time/space obligations and don’t know how to step away from them. If we do not make a Herculean effort to remain balanced within this imbalance, we feel fragmented and often unhappy.
What would it mean if the species were to completely lose the need and/or desire for privacy, solitude, time and focused attention? What if we were the last humans to be bothered by intrusions into our privacy? What would it feel like if our species evolved out of the need for an inner life?
Maybe I have become what social media scholar Danah Boyd calls a “techno-fretful parent.” But I have a public self as a university art school dean and a private self as a writer. The writer self has a deep need for solitude, or rather, I have a deep need for solitude, which is probably why I write. My longing for quiet and solitude comes from another urgency—the desire to think. And thinking requires no intrusions, at least for a time.
As political theorist Hannah Arendt noted, thought is essential to understanding our human condition. In order to tell the stories of human experience—inner and outer—writers and artists must have solitude and time to think. As a result of our “always-on” ethos, we have neither time nor space within which to lose ourselves in reflection. There is always something outside the self, robbing the self of the self.
When Thomas Merton, author of The Seven Storey Mountain, was ordained as a Trappist monk in 1949, his decision was unexpected. Not long before, he had been the editor of a student humor magazine. But Merton, who loved the world, was not moving away from it; rather, he was moving toward himself.
Theorist/situationist Guy Debord has labelled modern, external reality, the “spectacle,” describing it as a “social relationship between people that is mediated by images.” For Debord, what is dangerous about this “passive identification” with the spectacle is that it “supplants genuine activity.” Our relationship to reality is inverted, and the projection of the self, and the addiction to this projection, becomes more real and significant than human interaction, which has the potential to bring about societal change. What could better describe our contemporary situation than to say that the public sphere is no longer a place for collective action, but rather a dangerously redesigned network whose main function is to publicize the self?
Perhaps we are over-adapted to being watched, to having little left of ourselves that is not “posted,” “liked,” or “deleted.” At what point will our humanness, as we have known it, become unrecognizable to us? Or has that already occurred?