While it might not be a frequent sentiment, I have heard disdain about how technology negatively influences our social behaviors. There can be a myriad of imagined scenarios that would support this claim. Instead of chatting with a neighbor before class starts, a student quickly types 140 characters about how boring statistics is going to be. While driving in the car, a teenager checks his favorite gaming forum instead of telling his parents more about how his day was. Passengers on the train have their phones in their laps and their eyes locked on the screen instead of making small talk with fellow travelers. Thus begins a media frenzy, with claims about how these circumstances demonstrate the downfall of a friendly smile and wave in favor of an emoticon and click of the “like” button.
As someone who was excited about the launch of every new gaming system while growing up, who wrote a persuasive essay to my parents about why we should get DSL and dump our sluggish landline internet, and who is entering a field of research partly due to its potential to improve technology, I take issue with these claims. It’s first interesting to examine the xenophobia that appears to underlie these claims.
Consider the following quote:
“Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teacher.”
Similar opinions could be found by a quick internet search of “the problem with kids these days”. This quote is actually from “The Clouds”, a Greek comedic play written in 423 BC. The popular web-comic XKCD presented similar quotes on “The Pace of Modern Life”. A few from this list are included below.
“It is, unfortunately, one of the chief characteristics of modern business to be always in a hurry. In olden times it was different.”
This was written in a medical record in 1884.
“Our modern family gathering, silent around the fire, each individual with his head buried in his favorite magazine, is the somewhat natural outcome of the banishment of colloquy from school.”
This quote was from an education research journal, written in 1907.
“In these days of increasing rapid artificial locomotion, may I be permitted to say a word in favor of a very worthy and valuable old friend of mine, Mr. Long Walk?”
This was published in 1902 as the introduction to “A Plea for a Long Walk”, in which the author (only referred to as T. Thatcher) recounts his 42-mile walk on his 63rd birthday. While his argument for healthy living is commendable and uncontested, his concern for the impact of new technologies is a recurrent theme in all of these quotes. Only by changing a few words in the above quote, reasonable-sounding claims that would apply today could be constructed. Along the same line, the following picture could be taken as an example of how technology has encouraged anti-social behavior.
Improving the Richness of Social Wealth
This is not only a complaint about how the same arguments have been hashed and re-hashed over time, which demonstrates that implementation of new technology has not made us anti-social hermits regardless of what old guard may profess. New technology can also improve social wealth. Disabled individuals, like those with deafness, blindness, and other physical handicaps, benefit tremendously from technology. One of my friends’ dad is bedridden but gains fulfillment by scouring the internet and thus remaining connected with other people. Books, newspapers, and magazines likely kept similar people connected in the past, but these forms of entertainment do not compare to the instantaneous response of the internet. As technology has further improved, with the advent of e-mail, text messaging, and now video chat, disabled individuals incapable of physically navigating the world become even more connected.
In addition, technology has improved social connectivity by redefining an individual’s social circle and community. People can live in rural towns with individuals they hate and others who hate them but still have happy social lives. People have used the internet to form lifelong bonds and even to find love. Without new technology, losers of the birthplace lottery might be stuck in unfortunate circumstances without an outlet like the internet.
Planes traverse across oceans in less time than it used to take to travel between towns, but modern transportation does not compare to the cost and ease of virtual interactions. I can meet someone in Korea the same day I meet someone from Washington D.C. This is not only extremely efficient, but it also enables broader perspectives and diverse communities.
It could also be argued that improving technology improves the quality of social interactions, not just the quantity. If you like antique cars, but no one you know likes antique cars, you can’t talk about antique cars with anyone. However, antique car aficionados can find numerous antique car forums where they can chat and connect with like-minded individuals.
Use Technology Wisely
Of course, there are still rude behaviors that should not be ignored. Unless you’re sharing photos of your recent vacation or searching Google to tell your friend about the name of the song you have stuck in your head, it’s hard to excuse having your smartphone out while having lunch with friends. There is room in this argument to acknowledge that there should be time that laptops are closed and phones are out of sight.
To further address the counter-point, research has demonstrated that some aspects of social media are indeed anti-social. For example, a study demonstrated that prolonged Facebook usage leads to dissatisfaction with one’s own life. The lack of face-to-face social interactions is partly to blame for this but not for reasons that are immediately clear. Facebook users can be categorized as contributors or lurkers, with lurkers absorbing but rarely posting and contributors posting. In general, people want to appear a certain way and may alter photographs, exaggerate their accomplishments, and claim funny/deep quotes as their own. Lurkers take these posts at face value and begin to feel envious of their peers or unsatisfied with their own achievements. Social media and, by extension, the technology that provides social media access at all hours and at (nearly) all locations does have damaging effects on social well-being, which is why the technology should be utilized responsibly.
If students are engaged in social media instead of with their classmates, if teenagers are checking gaming forums instead of talking to their family, and if subway riders are immersed in news articles instead of greeting fellow passengers, it is not necessarily the demise of all human interaction. In fact, this would be no different from students reading magazines instead of speaking with their peers, teenagers turning up the radio instead of acknowledging their parents, and commuters with their noses buried in newspapers. Modern sentiments expressed by apparent technophobes are similar to those stated when the comic book or the Walkman was introduced (and we all turned out okay!). Plus, there are apparent benefits of new technology. Broad, widespread social circles can be enjoyed by those who seek them, or community niches can be formed with like-minded individuals. Still, do not practice undesirable social behaviors while indulging temptations of technology; instead, focus on harnessing new technology to enhance life experiences.