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.