I often see people lament that technology has weakened out social relationships. When I see everyone staring at their phone out at a restaurant I see their point. However I think technology allows us to develop deeper and more meaningful relationships, when used properly. I will first discuss the benefits of the internet and then the potential downfalls.
Services like Facebook and Twitter let us stay in contact and share parts of out lives we wouldn’t normally be able to share with all of our acquaintances. For example without the internet we couldn’t show photos of a trip we took to all of out friends easily. We would need to physically meet them and show them the photos. Facebook lets us share these sights very easily. We just hit the upload pictures button and then all our friends can see them.
Also with the internet we are able to stay in contact with people who don’t live in the same city as we do easily. With email and chat services it is easy to stay in contact with people we would otherwise lose track of. Before the internet we would need to phone them, before phones it would have to be a letter. Remember that phones and paper are technologies themselves. The internet is a more sophisticated technology that has largely replaced these. As technology progresses we are better able to maintain our social connections.
The internet also lets us connect in new ways not possible with these older technologies. For example on Twitter I can tweet about a book I just read and if I use tags and mention the author they will be able to see my comment. Without a service like Twitter this type of connection would not be feasible. I am not going to write out a letter and mail it in hopes the author will read it. Much less would I expect them to write out a letter themselves and mail me back. However with Twitter, with its 140 character limit, this communication takes very little time for both parties. Yes, this may be a very weak connection, but it still is a connection that can grow if need be. Previously the relationship between author and reader would strictly be one way, now with the internet the author can see what people are saying about their work easily. I just got twitter last week (@awsomedrifter) and quickly recognized its utility once I started using it. Before I thought it was dumb being limited only to 140 characters but after using it I really enjoy the challenge of getting a meaningful message across in such a tight constraint. Technology such as twitter helps develop new sorts of relationship between consumer and producer, not possible previously.
Furthermore with such things as online forums entire communities can be formed that would not otherwise exist. An example of this for me would be upsb.info an online pen spinning community. There are not enough spinners to really form a community in any physical place in the world but the internet removes these physical restraints and lets like minded individuals come into contact with one another. While people have probably been able to do the basic tricks of pen spinning without the internet, it is because of the communities that pen spinning was able to develop to the level it is today. The forums give people a platform to share their ideas and tricks, a place to collaborate and compete. It connects people who are able to make custom pens connect with spinners who will use them to develop new tricks. Without the internet pen spinning would not exist as it does today.
Technology allows for people to connect in entirely new fashions not even fathomable to previous generations. I, for the most part, reject the notion that the internet separates us. Instead it allows us to connect with one another in an entirely new way. For example you probably wouldn’t be able to know my thoughts on this subject without the internet. I wouldn’t go through the hassle of publishing and distributing this essay in meat space. Posting it on my blog however is not any harder than writing it however. This electronic medium lets you know me in a way you wouldn’t be able to learn from meeting me face to face. Sure, we could talk IRL, but it is not likely to come up in conversation and I am not one to deliver a 1000 word diatribe about the internet bringing us together (unless I am drunk, but even then I could meander into hundred other topics). This is not to say technology replaces face to face communication, but it adds another layer that we can use, if we so choose. This leads me into what I view as an abuse of technology, which does weaken our relationships.
It is now common to see couples eating out at a restaurant not even talking to one another. Instead they are both staring at the screens of their phones. I have been at bars where people in the group I am with constantly check their phone. I have heard stories about people with thousands of followers online but don’t have any close real life friends. The internet is a powerful tool, and like all powerful tools it can be misused. I feel the complaints against technology are misdirected however. It is not the internet or smart phones that are the problem. It the people who become addicted to them.
If I do not know a person well, and they are constantly checking their phone, I will think they either have anxiety issues or that they think I am boring. Either way it does not create a positive impression on me. It makes me feel like they do not want to engage with their environment. This might be what they intend to do, which is fine, maybe they aren’t in the mood to talk. All too often however, people check their phone unconsciously, out of habit, sending this message when they don’t mean to. This can hinder their ability to form social bonds face to face. Instead of using their phones to connect with people they use they are using them as a way to avoid connection. I think its because of this phenomena that it is common to see complaints about technology tearing us apart. I think this is a valid complaint, but only partially. Smart phones have the potential to keep us connected in a deeper way than ever before, as long as we aren’t constantly checking them.
The internet is surprisingly addictive and I think it is important to develop the presence of mind not to be sucked into the allure of constantly clicking buttons. I too find myself at times cycling through websites out of boredom. When I become aware that this is what I am doing I will do something productive instead. Those people constantly staring at a screen aren’t using their phones, they are abusing them. Its great being able to read an article online while waiting for a bus, its not so great staring at your Facebook feed because you have nothing better to do.
Another issue with the internet is that it allows us to only view ideas that we want to view. We can block out and ignore ideas we don’t agree with more readily than ever before. Furthermore we can find large groups of people who share a similar point of view as us, no matter what it may be. While this is largely a good thing, it can be harmful if we have negative or a absurd world view. There are many places on the internet where people gather as an echo chamber, which indoctrinates participants into a narrow world view, making them unable to deal with differing points of view. Without the internet they would adjust their point of view to fit in with those around them. With the internet they can find others to help reinforce their believes, whatever they maybe.
I think the internet is a wonderful tool that can bring us together so that we can develop deeper and more meaningful relationships. It can inform and educate us so we become more thoughtful citizens. It lets us share our art with people around the world. I also think it can be abused making us more isolated and more narrow minded. Please browse responsibly. Use this vast electronic infrastructure to connect with others, not isolate yourself.