Technology Isn't Anti-Social: People Are

In last Sunday’s New York Times magazine, Sherry Turkle, a psychologist and professor at M.I.T., wrote an interesting and thoughtful article, titled “The Flight from Conversation,” lamenting the ways technology -- social media and mobile devices in particular -- has (ironically) made human beings less social. For one thing, they allow us to isolate themselves from our surroundings, including other people, enveloping ourselves in another, virtual world. They also deceive us into thinking we are having real conversations, when in fact we are just trading little scraps of text and carefully-chosen images -- while keeping each other at arm’s length. At the same time, and somewhat paradoxically, they make it impossible to experience real solitude by keeping us constantly connected -- thus depriving us of the self-knowledge that comes from self-reflection.

All these accusations probably ring true, to a greater or lesser degree, to anyone who has ever reflected on the impact of technology on our lives. However, while Turkle makes a number of good points, I must respectfully disagree: there is nothing new in human beings using technology to distract themselves. Rather, this is the result of long-term trends and inclinations, so deeply rooted in human psychology I would argue they are simply part of human nature. In short, we all want (consciously or unconsciously) to be able to interact with other people on our own terms -- not theirs -- and technology is merely an enabler.

Consider the stereotype of the “social butterfly” (a phrase coined in 1910): a person who flits from companion to companion, having only brief, superficial interactions, and deriving more enjoyment from the volume of their socializing than its quality. The sense of always being connected is nothing new, either, as this is simply the latest version of the eternal complaint about the outside world intruding into our own thoughts. Like many aspects of human nature, this quality was captured perfectly by Lewis Carroll In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. At one point Alice is walking with the Duchess: “She had quite forgotten the Duchess by this time, and was a little startled when she heard her voice close to her ear. ‘You're thinking about something, my dear, and that makes you forget to talk. I can't tell you just now what the moral of that is, but I shall remember it in a bit.’”

It’s true technology and media play a role by enabling and encouraging our narcissism and myopia -- but this has been true since the first person picked up a book (or scroll) rather than socialize. The classic modern image of “loneliness together” is a husband hiding from his wife behind a newspaper. Commuters distance themselves from fellow passengers with books or newspapers (now digital). Another favorite way of distancing ourselves from the world around us is music: before the iPod there was the Walkman, before the Walkman the boom box, and before the boom box you could just hum quietly to yourself -- a more subtle distancing mechanism, but distancing nonetheless.

In her essay Turkle seems to excuse earlier technologies like the telephone, writing “We used to think, ‘I have a feeling; I want to make a call.’ Now our impulse is, ‘I want to have a feeling; I need to send a text.’” But this distinction is false: like social media, the telephone allowed (and allows) us to distract ourselves, to sample other people on our terms, and to avoid self-reflection. How many times do we call someone and have a conversation that is fairly meaningless “just because we’re bored” or “just to say ‘hi’”? And what about television? How many billions of hours -- trillions? -- have human beings spent wordlessly staring at a TV screen together, then counted it as “family night?”

In short, there is nothing inherently antisocial about social media or mobile devices, any more than there was about books, newspapers, telephones, radio, or TV. If we choose to distract ourselves from the world around us, it is precisely that -- a choice, informed by our desires and need to experience the world on our own terms.

5 comments about "Technology Isn't Anti-Social: People Are".
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  1. Thomas Kurz from EFP, April 26, 2012 at 4:43 p.m.

    well played...i concur.

  2. Steve Goldner from DivorceForce, April 26, 2012 at 6:06 p.m.

    Good stuff!

  3. Eric Scheck from Cross Channel Digital, April 26, 2012 at 7:37 p.m.

    Hello! Does the term dissociative disorder mean anything to anybody? Gadgets depersonalizes communications. Period. Try talking to any teenager while they're pounding away on their iTouch with their friend-- standing next to them. To no recognize on its face says something in and of itself. Get some help, fast!

  4. Rob Pitman from Tinderflint, April 27, 2012 at 10:40 a.m.

    It seems to have been a slippery soap since "Gadgets", whether they be iPads, the telephone or a book/scroll began. Though I agree that the essence of the problem hasn't changed I do think that the severity of it has. The "Gadget" distracts us but the level at which it engages our concentration determines how much it alienates us.

  5. Ananda Chakravarty from Monster Worldwide, April 29, 2012 at 9:32 a.m.

    Interesting thoughts. What made me start to think about this was a trip on the T just the other day, let me describe it to you. I jumped on board a small, linked subway car and stood near the front and could see four rows of seats in front of me plus the poles at the other end of the car. In the furthest row was a young man, t-shirt, jeans, sneakers, audio buds plugged into his ears, staring out the subway window, sometimes closing his eyes, apparently to the music. Next to him, a petite young lady in a bit more formal business wear clicking through a Kindle. Behind them, a couple, one tapping on an iPhone, the other playing solitaire on an ultra netbook. The net seat had a young kid clicking furiously on his gameboy mobile, with an older person pressing the button on their iPod touch. The seat in front of me had an iPad user surfing the web and another Kindle reader. It was mind-boggling, each person was in their own world, they decided on. Where did the awkward, furtive glances, the occasional smile, even noticing the people getting on and off the stops? But somehow everyone was interconnected and peripherally aware as they immediately rose when their stop came, and stepped off the train.

    What the technology has done is proliferate and make this state of social unrest become acceptable. Despite humans tending towards this on their own account, the technology remains partially culpable especially because society has accepted it as the norm. The peer pressure of conforming remains. True this distraction is not new, but it is forced. More important, it is required to remain a part of the culture. I was the only one on that subway car that was out of my space.

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