For my Media + Cultural Criticism class we were asked to write on a piece of technology and the impacts it's had on society (either positive or negative). I chose to write on smart phones because as somewhat of an iphone/social media addict this is something I've been thinking a lot about lately...
Just a typical weeknight: my parents and I sitting in the living room spending “quality family time” as we watch a Pawn Stars marathon. I hear music, but it’s not coming from the TV. I follow the sound and see my dad, Stylus in hand, playing the keyboard. Well, it’s a keyboard app he just downloaded (do real keyboards even exist anymore?).
I flash him an “I love you but that’s really annoying” look, which of course he doesn’t notice. Thanks to the beautiful symphony of notes coming from the couch next to me, I’d missed the dreaded iPhone Autocorrect fail, and tweeted “I love Porn Stars!!!” instead of “Pawn Stars”. Great. “Mom, make him stop!” “What’s that?” She looks up from her Blackberry, “oh sorry, I was writing an email.”
Yes, family bonding time—there’s nothing quite like it. With smartphones bursting their way into nearly every home (and hand) across North America, we are always connected, but are we connected with each other? Having the World Wide Web literally at our fingertips may come in handy when we can’t remember the name of that song or Marilyn Monroe’s third husband, but something is missing. Our phones are sucking us into their world, not the other way around, and we are constantly connected, yes, but we are connected with everyone (and everything) besides those who are directly in front of us. This disconnectedness leads to a weaker sense of community, and, in turn, an increased sense of loneliness, and, ultimately, depression.
In an excellent TED Talk entitled “Connected, but alone?” Sherry Turkle (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) discusses the connection between technology and feelings of isolation. See, when you’re sitting in a room full of people, but instead of being part of the conversation, you’re fully immersed in “liking” whatever a friend just posted on Facebook or, more likely, replying to what Neil Patrick Harris just tweeted, you’re not actually connecting with anyone (no, not even Neil). You are disengaging yourself, and in turn you feel disengaged. You are, essentially, setting yourself up for feelings of isolation because you are isolating yourself within a tiny touchscreen.
But the effect is not only on you; it also affects those around you who feel disconnected from you, and, in turn may pick up their own phones, which leads you to feel isolated from them, and the cycle continues. As Turkle says,
“The feeling that ‘no one is listening to me’ makes us want to spend time with machines that seem to care about us.” She adds, “We expect more from technology and less from each other.”
And as our expectations in real, in-the-flesh connections decrease, so do the efforts we put into these connections, resulting in weaker bonds between each other, and, inevitably, feelings of loneliness.
Everyone knows what it means to feel alone in a crowded place. Unfortunately, this is becoming the norm. Walk by a group of high school students and see how many of them are standing in what seems like a social circle, but each with their heads down, immersed in their phones. And of course we’ve all seen the classic coffee date, in which one (or both) parties are busy texting, absently nodding while the other attempts to carry on the conversation. Does this really fulfill our need for community and connectedness—spending thirty minutes or an hour at the same table, but only half-present? And then we get in our cars to drive home and wonder why we feel so empty, so alone.
Eventually, this loneliness leads to depression. We were made for community, we were made for intimacy, and so when we find ourselves without it, we feel as though something is missing deep inside of us; we feel as if we aren’t whole. Yet we don’t know what to do about it, because we don’t actually see the problem. We’ve become so immersed in our smart phone society, that we don’t notice there’s anything wrong with it. On the contrary, sometimes we actually think it’s the solution. I’m lonely? I’ll text someone. I’m feeling sad? I’ll distract myself on Facebook. So we are alone, we are depressed, and we are mistaking the problem for the cure.
In the end, Smart Phone culture is weakening our relationships, which leads us to feelings of isolation, loneliness, and depression, and the problem is we don’t even realize it. First we need to make the connection, and then the only solution is to put down our phones and engage with the people in front of us. Until we do that, we will remain, as Turkle says, “Connected but alone.”