A year can’t go by now without some pundit, writer, or researcher weighing in on how the more technology infiltrates our lives, the lonelier we’ve become.
Stephen Marche, a novelist writing in the May 2012 Atlantic, weaves together a bunch of anecdotes to suggest that Facebook is making us lonelier.
Renowned MIT researcher Sherry Turkle, who bases her conclusions on an endless stream of in-vitro interviews with teens and young adults, suggested over the weekend in the New York Times that technology is certainly making us more connected… but those connections are more shallow and less rich that traditional face-to-face connections.
These are interesting observations, but are they offering us a false dichotomy? Or suggesting a causal relationship where none has yet been established?
Marche kicks off the false dichotomy argument by asking questions like:
The question of the future is this: Is Facebook part of the separating or part of the congregating; is it a huddling-together for warmth or a shuffling-away in pain?
Research has some answers to these questions, which Marche explores to some degree in his 5,344 word essay. What the data actually demonstrate is a fairly complicated relationship — one mediated by personality, psychological resilience, social factors, and frequency of use of the technology. It’s not going to be this nice, clean, black-and-white false dichotomy that so many writers yearn for.
In other words, it’s a dumb question to ask because the answer isn’t one that can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” Facebook has no more power to “make” us lonely than reading a book or watching television does.
Which is exactly what loneliness expert John Cacioppo tells Marche in the very same article:
Surely, I suggest to Cacioppo, this means that Facebook and the like inevitably make people lonelier. He disagrees. Facebook is merely a tool, he says, and like any tool, its effectiveness will depend on its user.
You can use a hammer to build a house or to bludgeon another human being. But nobody spends any time asking such thought-provoking questions like, “Are hammers making us become more murderous?“
Marche doesn’t let common sense or research data stop him from coming to his pre-determined conclusions, though:
What Facebook has revealed about human nature—and this is not a minor revelation—is that a connection is not the same thing as a bond, and that instant and total connection is no salvation, no ticket to a happier, better world or a more liberated version of humanity. […]
Facebook denies us a pleasure whose profundity we had underestimated: the chance to forget about ourselves for a while, the chance to disconnect.
Huh? Really?? Facebook just revealed that?
I think most of us were already in on this ground-breaking “revelation.” We knew that when the postal service made letter delivery more reliable, and people could send letters back and forth across thousands of miles. We learned that again when the telephone became commonplace, and we could instantly connect with anyone else in the world, just by dialing a set of numbers on a small electronic device.
Besides, I have to ask, who was going around really believing that Facebook is the means a person would turn to in order to find greater happiness? It’s simply like the telephone of old… Allowing us to connect and re-connect with others in a simple, often — but not always nor exclusively — brief manner.
Last, tools can’t deny you anything. A hammer doesn’t deny your using it to build a house, any more than it denies your using it to murder another human being. These are choices that only people — rational, thinking human beings — can make. Pushing off the blame onto the technology itself is irrational and problematic. If you want to disconnect, just do so. If you want to read a book, just do so. If you want not to be on Facebook, log off.
Connections Don’t Equal Meaningful Conversation
Sherry Turkle repeats the argument, by and large, suggesting that many of us have confused being connected — through social networks like Facebook — to having meaningful connections. It’s a subtle but potentially important differentiation.
In the silence of connection, people are comforted by being in touch with a lot of people — carefully kept at bay. We can’t get enough of one another if we can use technology to keep one another at distances we can control: not too close, not too far, just right. I think of it as a Goldilocks effect.
Texting and e-mail and posting let us present the self we want to be. This means we can edit. And if we wish to, we can delete. Or retouch: the voice, the flesh, the face, the body. Not too much, not too little — just right.
Human relationships are rich; they’re messy and demanding. We have learned the habit of cleaning them up with technology. And the move from conversation to connection is part of this. But it’s a process in which we shortchange ourselves. Worse, it seems that over time we stop caring, we forget that there is a difference.
But again, it’s painting a picture of a world where it’s either one or the other — online or face-to-face.1 But the latest generations of kids are growing up in a world where the two meld together largely as one, where people are using the technology as a way to connect with their real-world peers on a daily basis.
Such technological connections don’t at all preclude real-life conversations. If we’re not having them, it’s because that’s our choice — the technology isn’t choosing for us. Telephones haven’t become less prevalent (if anything, the opposite is true because of mobile phone use). We’re simply choosing to use them less as audio devices.
What we’re witnessing is the rise of new technologies helping to mold and change the way people interact with one another, sometimes in some very fundamental ways. Just as the automobile did. Just as the radio did. Just as the telephone did. Just as television did. And so on…
But then some people suggest that because these ways are different than what they are used to, they are automatically worse. That’s where the problems begin. Different doesn’t automatically equal bad, and without quantifiable measures, all you have is a subjective lens in which to conduct your measurements. (Turkle, unfortunately, doesn’t use much quantifiable data to reach her conclusions.)
It’s true — I, like many people online, don’t engage in long, drawn-out conversations with others — friends, family or colleagues. But what I do do is something I couldn’t do easily two decades ago — keep connected with a social circle of hundreds.
This doesn’t stop me from having those in-depth, face-to-face conversations, or put them off. I’m under no illusion (or delusion) that having a social networking circle of hundreds or thousands makes me more social. Perhaps I’m alone in believing that, but I don’t think so.
I think most of use services like Facebook, Twitter and the rest as the tools they are. We use them to help schedule face-to-face time, keep up with our friends who no longer live nearby, and stay somewhat connected with them.
When I spend time with my technologically-connected and savvy nephews and nieces, we put away the technology to spend some time together. Or we use it to engage in shared activities (like video games) — something adults and kids have been doing without ill effect for decades.
The connection is indeed different than it was decades ago. Decades from now, it will be different again. Whether those connections are weaker or stronger is entirely up to the individual who uses the tools.
For Further Reading
Is Facebook Making us Lonely? – Stephen Marche
The Flight from Conversation – Sherry Turkle
- I can’t help but wonder if this is just an old journalistic device trotted out on a regular basis by the best of writers just to help turn page views, just as its been done for centuries to sell newspapers and other media. After all, it takes little imagination or effort to suggest a simple evil is the root of people’s unhappiness. It takes far more effort and time to explain the complicated, subtle relationships occurring. Oddly, Marche does a lot of the good explaining, but then negates all the research data and expert opinion with his own opinion at the end of the piece. [↩]