I love my devices. This past week, I've skyped with a friend who, flung as far as the poorest country in Eastern Europe, shares her stories of fear and joy, and we pray together. Through Facebook, I've rekindled connections that would have long ago been lost, like the one with my friend from California with whom I traveled to France the fall semester of our third year of university. This week we message each other, determining to find an excuse soon to travel and introduce our children to one another. Texting keeps me in touch with my new friends here in Toronto: I get a coffee order. I make plans to run. I ask for prayer. I invite for dinner. Functioning in these ways, technology has enhanced the relationships I have, multiplying the possible connections I have with those I already call friends.
It's also true that some days, I dream of leaving my iPhone abandoned in the pocket of a coat hanging in our hall closet. I don't want to interrupt my macaroni and cheese lunch with the twins to answer the incoming text or Facebook message. I'm often overwhelmed to see the number of emails swelling in my inbox, and I wish it weren't my constant compulsion to scroll through status updates. (I'm reminded of the friend who's recently had a baby and to whom I've not breathed one word of congratulations.) I can't help but feel that the multiplication of my connections demands the multiplication of my time, my attention and my energy. And let's get real about the math: multiplication is really just a form of division. My technologies have made me perpetually distracted; I'm only half-present to my real-time interactions. The other half of me is virtually lost.
Two articles about technology have recently caught my attention. First, this past week, an opinion piece entitled, "The Flight from Conversation" appeared in the New York Times. Its author, Sherry Turkle, psychologist and professor at MIT and author of "Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other", argues that in our technological era, we're traded conversation for connection, buying into the empty promises of our devices.
"We expect more from technology and less from one another and seem increasingly drawn to technologies that provide the illusion of companionship without the demands of relationship."
"Lacking the capacity for solitude, we turn to other people but don't experience them as they are. It is though we use them, need them as spare parts to support our increasingly fragile selves."
These aren't mind-bending conclusions.
In the May issue of The Atlantic, Stephen Marche's piece, "Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?" opens with the terrifying story of Yvette Vickers, a former Playboy playmate who, at the age of 83, died in her apartment but was not found until almost a year later. Impoverished of any real relationships save her online connections with former fans, Vickers and her anonymous death have become symbols of our increased connections - and mounting loneliness.
"Vickers' web of connection had grown broader but shallower, as has happened for many of us."
Marche doesn't do the easy demonization of technology that we might expect: he settles responsibility on the shoulders of whom it belongs.
"Loneliness is certainly not something that Facebook and Twitter or any of the lesser forms of social media is doing to us. We are doing it to ourselves. Casting technology as some vague impersonal spirit of history forcing our actions is a weak excuse. We make decisions about how we use our machines, not the other way around."
I have absolutely NO idea what are the right decisions that we are supposed to be making in term of our use of technology. But I suppose the first step is admitting the problem many are seeing. Our screens run the risk of making us lonely, replacing the kind of conversation that feeds our humanity and nourishes our spirit with a diluted and weakened form of connection, the kind that exists solely in type and pixel.