The advent of the Internet has placed the world at our fingertips, contributing to what journalist Thomas Friedman called the “flattening” of the world.
Mobile devices with Internet access, such as smartphones and tablets, have made us more connected than ever.
Social networking sites have enabled us to keep in touch with friends, family and acquaintances as often and as much as we desire.
For all these benefits, we should continually reflect upon these questions.
â— What are the qualities and characteristics of relationships formed or sustained primarily through social networking?
â— Are we sacrificing person-to-person, face-to-face encounters for screen-to-screen, text-to-text interactions?
â— Do we become less connected to the friends and family in the physical world while we become more connected to friends and family in the digital world?
In sum, what are the drawbacks of digital, Internet-based connectivity?
Recently, The Atlantic published excerpts from Al Gore’s newest book, “The Future,” in which he describes how the Internet is changing human life, even changing what it means to be human.
In discussing technology’s impact on conversation, Gore references Sherry Turkle’s phrase “alone together,” with which she describes how we can be connected via social networking and still feel (and be) alone.
“Alone together” is an apt description of what many see as a primary drawback to human interaction through social networking platforms.
In recent years, some have asserted that social networking decreases in-person social interaction and, thus, increases social isolation. However, in 2009, the Pew Research Center (PRC) completed a study that countered such claims.
“People’s use of the mobile phone and the Internet is associated with larger and more diverse discussion networks,” the study found.
“And, when we examine people’s full personal network – their strong and weak ties – Internet use in general and use of social networking services such as Facebook in particular are associated with more diverse social networks.”
In 2011, PRC completed another study on the correlation between digital social networking and in-person social engagement.
“75 percent of all American adults are active in some kind of voluntary group or organization,” PRC reported, “and Internet users are more likely than others to be active: 80 percent of internet users participate in groups, compared with 56 percent of non-Internet users.”
Nevertheless, Turkle’s phrase “alone together” gives me pause regarding the quality of in-person human interactions in a society saturated with social networking.
“Alone together” can describe two or more persons being in separate places and using computers, smartphones or tablets to connect with each other through social networking. This is the issue addressed in the PRC studies.
“Alone together” can also describe two or more persons being in the same place, but connecting to other people in other places through social networking.
This is the more subtle manifestation because it is often unrecognized that we lose connection with those whom we share physical space in order to foster connection with those whom we share digital space.
To reflect on how frequently we are “alone together” in this sense, consider the following:
â— When was the last time you were with friends or family without looking at or sending a text message, checking e-mail or logging into Facebook or Twitter?
â— How often do you check to see if you have e-mail or a text message when you are with others?
â— Can you recall a significant portion of an evening in the past week that you did not focus your attention on a television, computer or smartphone screen?
Recently, my wife and I noted that we spend most evenings in the same space, but spend significant portions “alone together.”
We often have the TV on while cooking and eating dinner. Afterward, though we are both in the living room, the TV is on while I use my laptop and she uses her iPad.
We are “alone together” because even when we are talking to one another, we are engaged elsewhere.
When we recognized how much time we spent in this manner, we made a simple change. During dinner, we turn the TV off, don’t look at or answer texts, e-mails or phone calls, and choose to be fully present with one another.
Though brief, it has been helpful to stop being “alone together” and just be together at dinner each evening.
It has reminded me that while technology allows me to connect with people across the world, it can cause me to disconnect from people across the room.
Zach Dawes is the managing editor for EthicsDaily.com.