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Post-Digital Communication: How Being Social Makes Us Lonely

This post is going to be a bit unusual for my blog, but I would like to share what I have been doing last week, besides getting to the emergency in the hospital and getting multiple injections in uncomfortable places (don’t even ask).

Basically, it was my first week back to lectures after the holidays we have had for Christmas and New Year’s, so there was an intensive course on Post-Digital Communication i.e. diverse aspects of communication after the rise of the digital.

To begin with, even though there are various definitions on what communication is, it is my opinion that it could never be fully deciphered. The discipline of communication focuses on how people use messages to generate meaning within and across various contexts, cultures, channels, and media. A body of scholarship and theory, about all forms of human communication, is presented and explained in textbooks, electronic publications, and academic journals. In the journals, researchers report the results of studies that are the basis for an ever-expanding understanding of how we all communicate.
Yet, when it comes to simple boy-to-girl, girl-to-boy chit-chat, for some reason, the messages never, and I mean never ever, seem to be transmitted and understood in the right way, so all those textbooks and articles on how to successfully communicate with each other stay just that – pure theory. However, as I am not doing gender studies, I will avoid going any deeper into why men are from Mars and women from Venus, and instead focus on a far more amusing topic such as technology, and try to grasp a small bite of its effect on people and our behavior.

The world has shifted dramatically in the past 15 years – technologically, culturally, and even socially. Even though now we enjoy the easiness to connect with people around the globe, we are also more isolated, stressed and overwhelmed with constant stimuli. Various researches have shown that even though most are still optimists, we are all crankier, edgier and more anxious today. Even more, the American Psychological Association survey showed that the Millenials’ stress levels rival the one of adults, the most tech-savvy suffer the greatest effects intensive usage of technology has on wellbeing.

So how does technology play a role? Next time you take any form of public transportation, just let your phone rest in your pocket and observe.
I did it a few days back while taking the metro, simply because while I was walking down the stars to the platform, I was startled. There were over 50 people waiting, yet the thoughts in my head were louder than any noise there. There was not a single person talking to someone else, or even looking up. All of them, and I mean absolutely all, had their head bent down staring at a screen, whether a smart phone, tablet or a Kindle. The consequences this has on our overall behavior are immense, yet we seem to fail to grasp the significance of the situation.

Digging further into the matter, I came across researches that confirmed my “fears”. An overwhelming amount of evidence supports that we multitask more. Consequently, we make connections with people on an artificial and shallow level – not quite as deeply or as intimately. Also, we have shorter attention spans. We need more visual stimulation in order to break through to consciousness. One person had confessed that he used to be a book lover and used to spend hours reading, but now he finds it extremely hard to focus for as little as 30 minutes. Triviality reigns in another way. With the short attention spans we now have, the mountains of data to digest and an emphasis on speed, appearances are more important than ever, so it’s no wonder that the beauty industry is booming. In fact, only in 2012, nearly 5 million injection procedures were performed (such as Botox).

Because of our use of technology, but also because of the downturn of the economy and the lack of connectedness we have to each other within our communities, with fewer things that we share together, people have become individualistic and less community-oriented.

People also tend to respond with a little higher level of emotionality today, but only towards brands or establishments, while avoiding making a connection with “real people”. All the research supports that people just don’t feel as trusting of social institutions that are supposed to protect them. Eroding trust in government puts the burden of attentiveness on our shoulders, and with that, we become more wary, guarded and anxious. Our best means of relieving those symptoms is through support and empathy of others, each of which we receive is lesser amounts every passing day.

In her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, MIT Professor Sherry Turkle wonders if “virtual intimacy” degrades our experiences of each other. She offers ample evidence of superficiality in our communication and experiences of each other because of our use of technology: “In the silence of connection, people are comforted by being in touch with a lot of people – carefully kept at bay”, Turkle notes. “We can’t get enough from one another if we can use technology to keep one another at distances we can control: not too close, not too far, just right.” And the editing, deleting, and retouching capabilities of online communication “let us present the self we want to be”. She goes on to describe what’s lost when we substitute conversing with e-mails or texts, what she calls “sips” of connection: “Connecting in sips may work for gathering discrete bits of info or for saying ‘I am thinking about you.’ Or even for saying ‘I love you’. But connecting in sips doesn’t work as well when it comes to understanding and knowing one another.” Turkle points out that we care for each other in face-to-face conversations by noticing tone and nuance, all of which is lost when communicating online.

So are we texters, tweeters, and recorders in fact missing on important emotional moments while trying to share our lives? Maybe, at least for a day, we should try ditching Facebook messaging, Instagram filers and swiping on Tinder, and try communicating the old-fashioned way, when people actually had to make an effort.

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