I remember being distressed when it all started. Like most, I had waited until the absolute moment of crisis before finally reaching out—with my keyboard.
After having disclosed the appetizing details of a personal drama, my friend was dying to know more; he was hooked. And yet, there was just something wrong about the whole situation. Though I wanted nothing more than to press on, to move forward through this cathartic form of digital therapy, I couldn’t do it. Within me, somewhere, was a deep aversion about continuing such intimate dialogue via text. And so, when I had reached the therapeutic limits of Facebook chat, I called upon him to meet with me in person.
His response was somewhat disconcerting, though, something we’ve all come to expect in a world whose brilliance shines with the glow of screens that fit in our pockets.
“Huh? Why can’t you just say it here?” He texted me.
Here? Where was this “here” that he spoke so fondly of, exactly? And, I wondered how much of a cocaine, marijuana, and LSD milkshake one would have to drink to ever get the idea that a screen between my fingers was a place to meet with friends. The thought alone prompted me to wince in disgust. I would have thrown it in his face, too, were I not so desperate for sympathy.
“Because, I just can’t. I don’t want to type it all out.” I texted him back.
“Okay, but why face-to-face though?”
I was dumbfounded, confounded, flabbergasted, and all of those other silly sounding words used to describe a moment of such great disbelief. I remember my next thought being: “They got him; he’s one of them now.” My friend had become the zombified techno-cultured conformist that every corporate empire of the digital persuasion dreams about. He had become THAT guy—the poster child of a generation running on 4G and wifi, in a time where anxiety about NOT being on the Internet is the fastest rising star in medicine since Dr. Oz.
I like my friend well enough. He’s certainly been there for me. But there’s something to be said about his genuine surprise at my request for face-time, as it seems to be an increasingly common response amongst a culture spoiled by technology. Along with the advent of new conveniences in communication and digital media, we’ve also adopted a serious lack of tolerance for one-on-one conversation in person.
Just walk into any middle-class American home and you’ll find a television, computer, tablet, and mobile phone in every room, hooked up to their own tiny universe. These devices certainly provide us with great entertainment and a means of communicating with loved ones, but there seems to be a hidden cost to their integration.
Digital-age pioneers, like Mark Zuckerberg, would like you to believe that humanity has greatly benefited from social networking platforms and other internet communication tools—his livelihood requires your participation. But it really all depends on how you look at it; some people think reality television is good therapy.
Our idealization of digital communication puts much of the focus on the value of convenience afforded by such technology, while the drawbacks of less face-time and shallower relationships tend to be glossed over. But reality turns out to be less forgiving, as face-time proves to be the very ingredient necessary for happier living, through deeply fulling relationships.
It was this very irony of modern day hyper-connection which prompted psychiatrists and authors of a book called, “The Lonely American”, to ask:
Why in a time when more technology is devoted to staying connected, do we feel increasingly disconnected and alone?
It’s a baffling realization, and yet (thankfully), the answer is remarkably simple—it’s something every 6th grade science class can tell you. As children we learn that good sun light, soil, and water make plants grow healthy. As adults this example translates into cultural axioms like: “you get out what you put in,” and, “you can’t get something for nothing.” Throughout our entire lives, we’ve been taught that good things take effort, time, and patience—the same three factors required for building deep, fullfilling relationships in our lives.
So, why then, are we surprised to find that the value of digital love often comes up short?
The inherent power and pervasiveness of digital communication is cunning, as the pseudo-omniscience offered by our virtual lives has rallied support under the mantra: “more is better.” Somehow, we’ve been able to convince ourselves that all connections are equal in value, and that more digital friends equals more actual friends. And so, we dedicate more time and effort towards aquiring ever larger numbers of virtual friends and followers, but we don’t seem to feel the human benefit of such connections—our stress and anxiety levels go up, and our list of true confidants dwindles.
That’s because having more isn’t the end of the story; more connections also means having less time to dedicate to each of them. And so, under the illusion of connectedness, we spread ourselves thin over the shallows of superficial relations and never really get to sink into the security of deeper bonds with others. Ultimately, what has emerged is a trend that reinforces a major shift in cultural values—a choice of quantity over quality.
The net result of this value shift creates a situation in which, we as a society, suffer the negative effects of having fewer deep relationships but are unable to understand why we suffer. This kind of oblivion can prompt us to call upon the comforts of prescription drugs, alcohol, and promiscuous sex, in an attempt to bridge the gap between the connections we imagine and connections we can actually feel. But the void never gets filled.
Tweets and wall posts provide a means for people to read what you want them to read about your life. That’s not a relationship—that’s a bulletin board. No one reading this sentence has ever had an intimate relationship with a bulletin board, and I don’t imagine it would ever work out well. (Or, so I hope). But, that’s because the value of having people physically involved in your life is far greater than people just reading about it. You can’t expect that taking a multivitamin everyday means you’re getting adequate nutrition; it just doesn’t work that way, and neither do relationships.
It’s this crucial subtly that continues to allude our rationale as well as our behavior. Intellectually speaking, we can all grasp the concept of how important face-time is for the depth of our relationships, but there’s no follow-through. We bend to the ease of luxurious convenience, staring, starry-eyed wide at flashing screens for hours on end. We’ve got hundreds of friends and even more contacts, but still, all the virtual love in the world can’t fill us up. There’s just something about the process of how we connect with family and friends in-person for which there is no substitute. You can’t fake it. Written text and emoticons can’t create the kind of genuine intimacy necessary for cultivating the deep sense of belonging, safety, and support we all need and seek.
So, why aren’t we talking about that?
Well, the answer has a lot to do with how the introduction of new information and technology shape the cultural values of a society, as well as the way in which those values are expressed. If you’re having a tough time grasping this concept, don’t worry—I’m two steps ahead of you. The phenomenon of how cultural values can change for the worst was illustrated brilliantly in a 2010 New York Times Magazine article entitled, “The Americanization of Mental Illness”.
The article cites the experiences of Dr. Sing Lee from Honk Kong, who before the 1990’s, had treated very few cases of eating disorders among young women. However, after the highly publicized death of a self-starved 14-year-old girl, everything changed. The Chinese went looking for answers, and when they came upon western medecine’s holy bible of mental disorders—the DSM—they adopted the American daignosis of Aneorexia and disseminated the details of its manifestation throughout their culture. By the end of the 1990’s, Anorexia had caught fire in Hong Kong, and Dr. Lee estimated that between 3 and 10 percent of young women living there showed disordered eating behavior. But perhaps more astounding were changes in the expression of eating disorders in those young women.
Before the western definition had entered the minds of the Chinese, the very few women who practiced self-starvation often complained of stomach pain and a sense of bloating that deterred them from eating. After western information had permeated Hong Kong medicine, nearly 90% of aneorexics treated by Lee expressed a fear of getting fat. Simply put, the Chinese had been “taught” to get sick in the same way American girls do.
What do Hong Kong aneorexics have to do with the effects of digital technology on relationships? Everything.
If we want to understand why people aren’t making the effort to put in more face-time, or why the request for face-time has become an odd one, we must understand the sources which influence our cultural values—in this case, new technology.
Just as the expression and values associated with disordered eating in Hong Kong had been influenced by western ideas of body image, the introduction of social networks and mobile communication technology has changed our perception of face-time and how often we engage in it. Overall, our digital lust for convenience has made face-to-face contact seem more like a chore, something unnecessary and easily substituted with chat apps and text messaging. The vast majority of persons have succumb to the persuasion that these things are enough, that they help keep our relationships strong. But the inquiry stops there.
Many don’t consider the true value and quality of all that virtual interaction, and wonder why, when times get rough, those connections don’t seem to respond well to our needs. The relief never really comes. The peace of mind that commonly follows a hug and the words, “everything is going to be okay”, cannot be realized.
The heights of our imagined virtual selves fall tragically short of the reality of those dreams, and when the dissonance between such ideals of love and companionship are felt, we retreat, evermore, into the emptiness of our endless digital searching. It’s a reaction that further isolates us, and may be one explanation for the dramatic decline of reported “close friends” among Americans since the mid 1980’s.
So how can we take back our humanity and engage in meaningful face-time? The answer isn’t so simple; you’re battling a good 15 years of hardcore indoctrination carried out by cultural game changers like Google, Facebook, and Twitter.
One way to begin efforts toward deeper relationships is to insist on meetings with friends that are distraction free—though, by no means is this an easy task.
If you think wanting face-time to discuss a difficult personal issue is a pretty radical idea, you ain’t seen nothing yet. See what happens when you suggest that a group of friends gather to sit down and just “talk”. The thought alone has the power to attract the kind of paranoid stares not seen since the Salem Witch Trials. If your friends didn’t believe in witches before, they sure as heck do now—now that you might expect more from your relationships than the standard digital love. And, just in case your wondering what it feels like to be strapped to a stake with flames lapping at your feet, it would be good to emphasis the absence of television and other electronic media entertainment during the gathering. Watch the eyebrows pop and the foreheads wrinkle in a vortex of vexing perplexity. Their expressions will say it all:
Wait, what do you mean just “talk”?
It’s the mark of a social species completely out of touch with its own natural instincts and skills.
When I first brought up this idea to a good friend of mine, the room grew silent. There was a fear in his eyes like that of a deer caught somewhere between the divider of the freeway and his own death. Here we were, just talking about getting together for a chat and yet, had you just entered the room you may have thought I pulled a shotgun on him. But that’s the way it really is for some of us, as the naked vulnerability of socializing without some digital distraction becomes something not unlike death—the death of our virtual selves, in the moment when we become real and the places we once hid seem to disappear.
Fast forward many months later and you’ll find that the depth of my relationships has grown significantly due to the efforts of face-time. Admittidly, it’s going to seem a bit awkward at first. But if you follow these simple tips to improving the quality of your face-time, the investment will pay dividends towards your stress levels and overall happiness for years to come.
Throw Away Your Phone.
Place everyone’s smart phone in a room seperate from your gathering space and insist that they be silenced. Additonally, go ahead and sit in a quiet space where you can all see eachother’s faces. Minimizing the temptations to check e-mail and text messages ensures that everyone is mentally present and participating.
Serve Some Goodies.
Everyone loves food. Sweeten the idea of a gathering without digital devices by serving coffee, tea, or some snacks.
Make a Plan.
Plan a fun, intimate activity that engages everyone. Anything from board games to book and movie discussions will work just fine. Take turns choosing the topics or activities for each meeting.
My friends and I meet for brunch almost every Sunday morning at this awesome pancake place. And often times, we’ll sit for well over two hours. It took only one meeting for us to realize how refreshing it was to just sit around and enjoy a weekend meal, face-to-face, without digital distractions. After that, it became a weekly routine for us, and the effects have been powerful enough to find us whining for Sunday brunch during Tuesday lunch. I remember one particular conversation over eggs, when all of us spoke outloud about how much we valued this time together and how it always put us in a great mood. The mental health benefits of rich face-time are positively contagious. Get into the habit of meeting regularly; it creates something special for you and your best relations to look forward to, and it’s a chance to strengthen those connections through consistency.