Asking if digital technology leads to increasing loneliness

Amongst people with whom I regularly interact, this would be a good question with which to start a conversation: does recent digital technology make us lonelier or bring us closer together? A sociologist at MIT has been investigating this for years and has some thoughts:

And what’s so dangerous about a made-to-measure relationship?
People would rather text than talk, because they can control how much time it takes. They can control where it fits in their schedule. When you have the amount of velocity and volume [of communication] that we have in our lives, we have to control our communications very dramatically. So controlling relationships becomes a major theme in digital communication. And that’s what sometimes makes us feel alone together — because controlled relationships are not necessarily relationships in which you feel kinship…

So these kids yearn for attention, but then, as you said, the idea of a phone conversation is too intimate for them — they’d rather text and chat.
They feel confused. That’s why I called the book Alone Together — because they shimmy back and forth. On the one hand, they’re so together that all they can do is text. And I identify with these teenagers, because it’s the way we’re all living our lives: you wake up in the morning, and you have 500 e-mails or 100 messages, and you say, “I don’t have time to do anything but respond to this.” So your life becomes completely reactive — you don’t feel alone, but you don’t feel connected.

What you certainly don’t have time to do is experience solitude. One of the most important things that we’re really losing is the ability to just be alone in a restorative way.

It sounds like the answer is that we are both more connected and more alone than before. In the end, perhaps what will change is how society defines relationships. Right now, we have traditional understandings of relationships (they require time, commitment, etc.) alongside digital understandings of relationships (they take place when you choose and more on your terms). In fifty years or even a decade or two, what’s to say that these digital relationships won’t be the primary form of human interaction in the world?

This reminds of a recent cell phone commercial that illustrates this “alone together” idea. This particular cell phone unit has a form of Windows operating system with an interface where you can quickly see if you have any emails or Facebook news. But the commercial suggests why this is necessary is so that you can quickly return to the really important things in life. In these commercials, the technology is treated as an accessory (and perhaps even an annoyance) – but a necessary accessory since you really need to stay up to date with those emails and personal news updates.

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