Last week Belghast raised an interesting topic. Izlain brought it up on the most recent Couch Podtatoes episode, and I’ve been thinking on it ever since. Has technology made us less social? Are we anti-social these days?
That’s a difficult argument to prove even for those who believe it. We communicate in more and varied ways today than ever. Technology has supported socialization …but a very different kind, just like all media of any given era. Radio changed the amount of speeches and book readings we could attend. TV made theater accessible to even the poor. Placing a computer in every home has also come with it’s bonuses and downsides. We’re learning to socialize in dramatically different ways. It’s not really surprising that we don’t do it in the ways we did even 10 years ago or that it’s impacts on our social lives have been so huge.
Belghast said that the idea of face-to-face communication as the norm is extrovert centric and I think that’s a fair point. I hadn’t really thought of it that way before, but that still seems unlikely. It’d be like saying the human diet is food-centric — it sounds correct, but it’s also a little absurd. It’s well established that humans are intensely social creatures, literally surviving on interactions with other humans. Can we lead rich social lives without coming into physical contact with humans? Guess it depends on how we define rich.
But usually I hear people describe how they’d rather spend their time on the internet than face to face and I can’t help but feel they’re missing something. The longer we’re alone with the internet, using it as a proxy for socializing, the more comfortable it feels and the more uncomfortable we’ll feel in face-to-face interactions. There are literally thousands if not millions of people around the world who know this feeling, and apparently it’s not too surprising. It’s just the times we live in. Studies conducted about how we use the internet and it’s impacts on our social lives show a significant correlation between increased internet use and decreased socialization. I think we’ve adapted to a certain level of anti-socialization. That’s my fancy term for saying “people like to have their cake and eat it too”. We want all of the perks of socializing with people with none of the downsides. A free and open internet delivers this, but in doing so it breaks people down into byte-size for our consumption.
What if you could have all the joys of socializing without any of the discomfort? Well …you can! The internet allows us to communicate in ever preciser doses of social interactions. We can use chat boxes when we don’t want to hear voices, avatars when we don’t want to use videos, pictures when we want to see faces. At no point on the internet am I forced to view (pictures), watch (interaction), feel (emotions) and hear people all at once which is what face-to-face interactions require. I can chose to enjoy the pieces of socializing that suit me and discard all the rest. And that’s exactly what we do on the internet. And that’s anti-social in my opinion.
This is why internet anonymity is dear to us. It is control. I can be precisely who I want whenever I want. People’s perceptions of me will be whatever I want them to be since I control the entire interaction, unlike face-to-face where we’re constantly judged by appearances, sounds and bodies. We love to socialize, and if something else controls how we do it then we’re effectively back to the way things where before the internet. Choosing to surf the net instead of going out with friends on a Saturday night is a perfectly normal choice, but the former is inherently less social than the latter. Still, there’s also really good reason to prefer virtual gatherings to physical ones.
People are exhausting and it’s not really because any one of us is extroverted or introverted even though that plays a part. People literally place demands on our energy when face to face. We have to talk with them, tapping into our emotions, making us think about their ideas, adjusting to their physical presence …socializing literally requires a lot of energy. So it’s no wonder anyone could feel exhausted after a gathering, going out, party or other social event. There’s nothing abnormal about that. But what’s interesting is that in this technological time people have suddenly noticed the amount of energy that this takes, whereas before we took it for granted. And having noticed, we can now make a choice to save our energy for other things. That’s not a tough decision to make. If I can put that energy to more efficient use while getting the amount of socialization I need to get by, I’ll naturally prefer this method over any traditional way of socializing. Whether that’s healthy or not will, to some extent, depend on the person but what we do know is that too much isolation from other people causes psychological distress — and that’s not healthy. There’s good reason that solitary confinement is used as a method of torture and punishment. We know how bad the effects of loneliness are on people.
I think communicating face-to-face is still important, it doesn’t matter if you’re introvert or extrovert. There’s a reason we’re born yearning for a human touch and a human face. Those yearnings are part of what make us human. The internet isn’t yet mature enough to make that less important. Today we’re adapted to the current technology, we’re used to it’s demands and perks. In this case, I can chose to socialize via the net instead of in person. Either way, I still always chose to connect with people, which says a lot about what we really want. No one wants to be alone, we prefer to spend time with people, even when we chose to do it over the internet introverts and extroverts alike.
And that’s why VR is going to explode all these concepts of introvert and extrovert! Those same people who call themselves introverts (me included) will be the first with virtual avatars, walking through Janus or going to VR travel agents …and they’ll do it so that they can see other avatars and be in their presence. I personally want to see how extroverts react to this, because I have a feeling they’re less likely to embrace it than the same introverts who prefer the net to real faces. We love being around people more than we care to admit.
I enjoy being alone and I love being in the company of people, the former more than the latter. Before I married I was spending an inordinate amount of time on the internet. I remember feeling crazy some nights being alone. Some part of me enjoyed the silence, but some other part of me felt it wasn’t enough, the feeling of something missing and not in the “I want a partner” sort of way. It wasnt’ loneliness or unhappyness, it was just the feeling of something …missing. A bit off. One way or another, I found excuses to be around people I enjoyed or went out to meet new people to enjoy, even though I still spent the majority of my time alone and even though while in the company of people I didn’t tend to interact with them in any way at all. I need to experience the presence of people. I found the balance for me and I suspect everyone finds that balance for themselves. I think it’s a very strange idea that life can be rich without the strong presence of people, even if it’s just a handful of essential people. That’s tough to imagine because in some ways people are what make my world feel large and full of possibilities.
A really unfortunate side effect of the internet age is that while trying to spend our energies socializing more efficiently, we’re objectifying human interaction. In our minds, we now have Human Interactions in nice little packages of varying sizes and shapes which we can go to the internet and “shop” for. Feeling anti-social? Turn off the social media or ramp up my inner-troll (consequence free!). Want to feel voices around you? Hang out on Twitter. Need someone to talk to? Open Skype and pick any of the dozens of impossible numbers of “friends” on your list and strike up a conversation. We didn’t aim for this state of affairs, but when you think about it it’s all kinda anti-social because we’re just looking for pieces of others, the pieces we’re comfortable with. We want the perks of interacting with people without actually interacting with people. Socially anti-social.
In this crazy age of cyborgs we view each other less and less as necessary and I don’t like the idea of people becoming unnecessary to one another, so I tend to think that at some levels, internet socialization is harmful. But I suspect many of us think that. We just don’t know where to draw that line or at what point we’ve crossed it. At what point is preferring the company of virtual people anti-social? Can we really socialize with pieces of people? How we understand the word socialization is changing, but so are we.
I’ve rambled on enough here. This subject is endless, like the droves of billions of humans around the planet. We’re not in a danger zone yet, I don’t think. But when people say that the internet is making us anti-social, I suspect they feel that the line between socializing and anti-social is being blurred or crossed for them. They’re afraid, like many of us, of people forgetting people and I think that’s a healthy and well-founded fear to have.