Connected but disconnected

I watched Sherry Turkle’s TED talk the other night, and was captured by her insights into life and technology. She talked about how even though we are so closely connected through Facebook, texting, and emailing, we are still so alone. Below is my commentary on her talk.

Sherry explains that we let technology “take us places we don’t want to go.” Our devises in our pockets have a psychological effect on us that “not only change what we do, they change who we are.” Things that we used to believe to be odd (texting in meetings, class, dinner, etc.), now become the norm. I can’t remember the last time I went out for food without someone being on their phone. I’m always tempted to play ‘phone stack’ just to see if it’s possible. Our mobie devices are shaping the way we experience things And what are we doing on them when we’re with friends? Telling other people that we’re eating dinner WITH other people, but are you really? Sherry calls this “being together without being together.”

While this may seem trivial and just the new trend, Sherry believes this is setting us up for trouble in relating to others and relating to ourselves. When we are truly with people, our attention has to be focused on them. Mobile devices give us control to focus on however much of whatever we want. We’ve trained ourselves to perk up on what’s relevant to us, but to distract ourselves as soon as it’s passed.

Sherry explains that we are hiding. We don’t want to be interrupted, we would rather do stuff on our smart phones. We want to be together, “but at a distance, and in amounts that we can control.”  It’s so easy for us to be present for a little while, but as soon as it gets dull or uncomfortable, we shrink back into our phones. How are we to develop as individuals, even as Christians, if we shrink back into our phones as soon as we get near something tough? I’ll admit, when I get uncomfortable I go to my phone. It’s almost like a security blanket. When I’m in line in the Caf at Biola and I’m not standing with people, I’ll get on my phone because I’m uncomfortable.

One of the quotes that stuck me most from the video was
the one from the 18 year old texting teen who said, “someday, someday, but certainly not now, I would like to learn how to have a conversation.” How sad is that? It isn’t that he doesn’t have friends, but that he doesn’t know how to have real conversations with them. He texts for everything.

Photo credit: lifespreciousthoughts blog

It comes down to the bottom line that conversations are scary. They “take place in real time and you can’t control what you’re going to say.” Conversations expose you and force you to be engaged. With all our other outlets we can touch them up and make ourselves look better than we are, but real conversation exposes us so much more, and that’s why it’s frightening. Even though I have conversations with people, I’m afraid of them. I’m putting myself on the line and every moment I’m being perceived. With Facebook and texting I can take my time to reply, or not reply at all, but it’s hard to get away with that in a conversation. In fact taking time or not responding speaks much louder in conversation than not responding to a message. You can say you missed a message, but it’s clear when you’ve heard a person’s words.

But don’t all those bits of tweets and online conversations add up to a real conversation? Sherry says no. While they are nice and allow you to say “I’m thinking of you” or even “I love you”, they “do not allow you to get to know each other” and know oneself. While facts and information, sentiment and feelings can be sent over messages, it does not equate with face to face conversation. When I hear this I think back to the old days of letters. Aren’t all those love letters real conversation? Perhaps, but perhaps not. They may just be strong examples of saying “I’m thinking about you” or “I love you”, but do they really allow people to get to know each other?

People now say they would rather text than talk. I admit, I would rather text than talk on the phone, but that’s because I don’t hear as well on the phone (blame band). But people become so comfortable with texting, that they would rather “dispose of people” and wish that Seri would be there instead. This is because we feel like know one is listening. When we post to Facebook or text we have “automatic listeners”. These interactions online are impersonal, but we’re learning to receive empathy from these electronic exchanges. Sherry gives an example that goes so far as to the comfort comes from the technology and not the people behind it. Empathizing robots are being introduced in nursing homes so that people will feel like someone is listening. One lady was speaking to a robot in the shape of a baby seal that seemed to be empathizing, but it can’t because it doesn’t know the feelings of life and death. But this seal served as an automatic listener. We need someone to listen to us, but that someone is slowly turning into something. “We expect more from technology and less from each other.” We focus on the technology of being liked on Facebook more than the person that is liking us on Facebook. This is dangerous and defeats the purpose ofsocialnetworking.

Sherry explains that these technologies appeal to our vulnerabilities. “We are lonely, but afraid of intimacy.” Social networks and technology allow us to be connected, but not intimate. They give us the “illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship.” You don’t have to be intentional with people through technology. It’s simple to pick up a device and post or send something. It takes intentionality to take time to meet with them and plan to do something.

Phones and devices are so addictive because they offer us three “comforts”:

  1. We can put our attention where we want it
  2. That we will always be heard
  3. That we will never be alone
A woman reading SMS messages on her mobile pho...

A woman reading SMS messages on her mobile phone while standing on a bike in traffic. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But is being alone really a problem? As an introvert, I enjoy being alone, but being alone can be uncomfortable. When we come to a still moment, we pull out our phones or get uncomfortable. Think of all those times you’re in line at Disneyland, at a red light, waiting for someone to come out of the bathroom, when no one is talking. Many times you most likely pull out your phone or try to connect, but maybe we need to learn to sit in this place of stillness. Maybe it’s good to be able to be by oneself and take a breath. But we are afraid of being disconnected. We think that somehow we’ll ‘exist’ in a different way. Sherry points out that we believe the statement “I share, therefore I am.” If we sit in silence and disconnection, we feel like we lose a part of our existence. We almost can’t feel ourselves unless we share our experiences and feelings. But our existence and feeling doesn’t depend upon our ability to share.We exist and feel regardless of how much or how little we share and the extent of our existence does not depend upon on sharing.

Sherry does not recommend turning away from our devises, but that we need to be aware of our relationships with them and with others. We need to make “Sacred Spaces” (yes, she says that) that are reclaimed for conversation. With this we need to learn how to listen to people,even the bits that we would normal tune out at. It is the pauses, stumbling of words, and tough words that reveal who we really are. We need to listen intently to know one another, something we can’t do if we’re surfing Facebook at the same time. Instead, we should now learn how to use technology to reconnect to our real lives, our real friends, and our real experiences. We need to learn to be connectedandtogether.

I’m not perfect and I know I switch over to my phone all the time. But when I have one on ones with people I do try to be intentional and not check my phone. If I do, I’m sorry and you have the right to call me out on it now.

I want to hear your thoughts. What are some experiences you have had with being connected but not close? How is technology changing your relationships, for the good or the bad?

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