Isolation via Communication

I would be surprised if you’re unfamiliar with the scenario of eight people at a dinner table, all looking down at a phone screen. I suppose it’s only been seven years since the first iPhone was released, so we the people are still in smartphone infancy, playing with our baubles. But the ubiquity of the smartphone, coupled with social media consumption and compulsion, have both tangibly and intangibly (and irrevocably?) changed the face of socialization.

The benefits of cheap and instant communication are self-evident; people the world over are more empowered than ever. Yet “smartphone” is almost an oxymoron: essentially all of human knowledge in the palm of your hand, yet these devices have quickly become merely a mechanism for sending photos of our meals rather than arranging a time to eat them together. We are now faced with the specter of isolation via communication, where the lines between on and off-line become blurred, there is no longer ‘out of sight, out of mind’ and people are reduced to abstractions. Social media has made us more social, less personal.

Who can forget the scene in the immortal film “He’s Just Not That Into You” in which Drew Barrymore laments the myriad and redundant ways people choose to contact each other leading to nothing but missed connections. To make the scene a bit less timeless, she enumerates MySpace among the various mediums (email, text, call, voice mail) but the point is even more germane today, where postmodern connections are maintained by looking down instead of up.

Compulsive addiction to technology isn’t novel; my mom would put a lock through the hole in the television plug to curb our viewing. But when the only power buttons were for TV and stereo, and the only way online was via a 2400bps modem, it was still rather easy to unplug and be confronted with face to face interaction, and a phone call to a friend led to an afternoon at the park. A clever (are they ever not?) recent Onion article titled “Americans Demand New Form Of Media To Bridge Entertainment Gap While Looking From Laptop To Phone” satirically calls for “a new form of media to bridge the entertainment gap we endure while turning their heads from their laptops to their cell phones.”

I feel fortunate to be part of the crossover generation between analog and digital. My most precious possessions are shoe boxes full of old photographs and postcards. We learned cursive in third grade, replaced our pencils with pens in fourth and then used them to write letters on 3-hole-punched notebook paper to pen pals at sister schools in Japan, Russia, and France. Staying connected was a deliberate process – think cooking a meal rather than nuking it.

Just a few years ago, the fear about communication degeneration was centered on teen texting leading to an inability to properly spell words and construct sentences. But fear not – today, there’s an app for that.