From the second the Internet debuted, you had all kinds of social commentators and psychologists raving about the potential for this new communication tool and the implications it proposed for how humans socialize and connect. Every time you turned on the TV there was some pompous expert on there talking about how people were going to be more connected than ever before and how the Internet itself (this nifty new tool) was going to catapult humanity onto a plane of unity it never even imagined for itself. People even went as far as anticipating the end of discrimination as we know it, and the inevitable emergence of an single globalized culture. And, as the Internet matured on the wings of advancing computer technologies, it seemed well on its way to fulfilling these grandiose prophecies. Quickly, computers and their Internet child became integrated themselves into nearly every market space and communication plane of human organization. Wow. Silliness. To be honest, though, I’m not so impressed with what the Internet has done for humanity. Not really. And maybe that’s the talk of a spoiled generation-Net baby. What good the Internet has done can most easily be measured in dollars than by any other unit. But if you were to measure the value of that which we consider to be the overall essential health of our innate humanity, you’d realize that we’ve been failing for a long time now.
I read a truly startling article—I mean absolutely mind blowing. But the parts that seemed to discharge my brain out the back of my head, like a nice shotgun suicide, weren’t the details it reported; those made sense. What blew me away was how oblivious I and those around be seemed to be. This study, conducted in 2006, revealed that Americans are more isolated now than ever before. Research indicates that since 1985, Americans’ circle of their closest friends went from 3 to nearly zero. While the study did not explicitly ask participants why they had fewer close ties, it speculated that more time spent working and commuting has contributed to the shrinking trend.
The bottom line:
We’re too busy for close relationships.
Close relationships take time, effort, and energy that we simply don’t have. But, what are we doing exactly? What’s all this busyness we’re always talking about? It is even real? Well, the answer seems to be: yes…sort of.
As I sit here writing this very article in the cozy cafe of Barnes and Noble, to the right of me there is a young boy who couldn’t be much older than 12. Currently, he’s texting on his smart phone from behind the brilliantly lit backdrop of a touchscreen notebook computer, streaming YouTube videos. His ears are wrapped in candy red headphones with the volume turned way (THE F*CK) up. He casually sips a NesQuick chocolate drink by freeing one of his texting hands, never breaking his focus from a mobile screen he holds way too close to his face. Suddenly, he plucks his ear out from under the headset, facing his mother to the right of him. In a voice unaware of its own volume, he shouts to remind her about a promise she made last week: the purchase of a new expansion pack for his PC game. Satisfied with her compliance, he begins poking at his screen with a stylus and playing an online RPG game featuring a colorful cartoon character riding on an over-sized bird. (By the way, there’s an older man in his 60’s at the table in front of this kid, publicly reading a Penthouse magazine. This has no bearing on the topic of this article—but dammit, that’s funny).
So, anyway, if you’re a rational human being like myself, you’re both amused and disgusted by this little vignette. And though we might write off this absurd episode of techno disassociation as an example of ridiculous parenting, it’s not too far off the mark in terms of the adult versions of such behavior. Are we not constantly multitasking? Do we not spend so much time on our smart phones as well? Do we not fill up every minute between necessary work with leisurely texting and online socialization in some form or another? Are we not engaged in some virtual activity at every moment of everyday—not just literally, but mentally as well? How often are we thinking of our virtual spaces, messages, and obligations, always waiting for a lull in the activity of real life so we can take a break, and then, do something else? And so, this busyness that we talk about, the busyness that keeps us from making genuine human connections and enriching our personal lives, is something we actually insist on. We choose to abandon the more demanding, yet, complete obligations required for deeper human bonds.
Even in our work culture you can see the same thing. What used to take an entire workday to complete, can now be done inside of an hour with computers. Awesome right? Right—if indeed we were able to reap the rewards of the extra leisure time. But what do we do instead? We simply add more tasks, and more stress, and more expectations. One of the most startling developments I’ve seen come out of the computer age is this huge paradigm shift in thinking about human capacity. People have subconsciously adopted this idea that, like the machines we use, human limitation is somehow an illusion; expectations mirror a philosophy that seems to believe that, given double the work, a finite amount of human resources can produce double the productivity, at the same level of quality, with no consequences. But, there are consequences: big, hidden, consequences. And so, because people are expected to be more productive than ever before, they’re working harder than ever before, and we’re sacrificing our humanity to pay the high price. There isn’t much time for friends when people are working so hard just to stay afloat.
I’ve heard a staggering amount of people express a deep feeling of isolation and lack of friendship. Most disturbing is that many of these people appear to have tons of friends and support from the outside. This is the emptiness. For all of our busyness and efforts, they never seem to fill us. And just when we start to suspect that something is awry, the looming shadows of corporatism and consumerism are right there next to us, assuring us that our oppressive working lives are justified, that new cars and the latest Louis Vuitton bag will make us feel complete. This fast-paced culture, brought on by the development of the Internet and post-PC markets, has created a prescription for busyness that our culture now insists on—not only in our professional lives, but in our personal lives as well.
It’s gotten to be that people have become uncomfortable with the absence of busyness, to the extent that they experience anxiety when their phone doesn’t receive enough texts, or their virtual lives experience a lull. Virtual distractions and cyber accolades have replaced the more concrete foundations of human bonds and it’s getting scary out there. But what people consistently fail to miss is that the value of our virtual busyness and socialization can’t measure up to real-world contact and effort, a hug, or calling instead of texting. When’s the last time you actually SPOKE to someone on your smart phone?
Imagine that feelings of connectedness and belonging could be bought with two separate currencies called “virtual effort dollars” and “real-world effort dollars”. Our behavior today reflects an abundant use of virtual effort dollars to try to “buy” feelings of connectedness and love. However, the value of our VEDs is so low that, even when we spend countless hours trying to buy this feeling of connectedness, we simply can’t buy enough. And, even when we do, the quality is so poor that the feeling fades within days or even hours. In contrast to VEDs, when we use real-world effort dollars to try and buy the security of close relationships, we get much much more for our efforts and a higher quality feeling that lasts. Simply put, we can’t feel fulfilled with virtual socialization alone.
We spend so much time “doing” so many tasks inside of a screen, that by the time we look at our watch again, we’re too exhausted to visit friends and family. Much of modern behavior has been shaped by the on-demand, non-linear self-command of virtual spaces that make real obligation seem impossibly difficult; it requires the kind of active thinking and effort that few people possess, inner resources of humanity that many have forgotten how to nurture and replenish.
If you take anything away from this article, take comfort in knowing that you’re not the weird kid that no one wants to sit with at lunch; your lack of close relationships isn’t necessarily a reflection of an inability to connect with people. If you’re lacking close relationships and you want to connect with people, you need to be honest with yourself and take a hard look at your behaviors. I saw a Facebook status the other day that said something to the effect of:
“I’m so lonely. I feel like I have no close friends anymore. What happened to everyone? I feel like I have no one to talk to.”
I once asked this girl a simple question after she had complained that no one called her anymore:
“Have you called them?”
Her answer was a direct reflection of the techno laziness and egocentricity nurtured by the lax demands of virtual socialization:
“No, but that’s because I’m so busy all the time. Plus, why should I text them if they never text me?”
So, not only was she NOT reaching out, she wasn’t even reaching out through virtual means.
Building solid relationships takes time. You’ve got to put in the effort. You can’t expect that a deep relationship should come without obligation. Our observable commitment to the people in our lives wins their commitment (unless they’re as*holes). So, you’ve got to get real-world involved. And, this may require that you shut off your cell phone for a few hours, turn off the Internet porn, and open up the shutters. Get your ass outside and visit someone, plan to cook dinner together at a friend’s house, or reach out to someone who’s struggling and needs to talk. Remember, to deny one’s humanity is to lose one’s ability to exercise it. Don’t get detached; get involved with your life.