Dr. Sherry Turkle is worried. The MIT prof (and author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less From Each Other) told an interviewer from The Verge recently that one of her main concerns is how to get families to talk to each other at the dinner table – instead of texting. What also concerns her is that young people may think of communication as being a Like button.
“People are texting at funerals! (Only during the boring bits, they protest). But things worth doing (like grassroots political campaigning) often require boring bits. For good stuff to happen, people need to talk to each other.”
And clicking on that Like button may in fact bring unforeseen consequences. Consider, for example, the six Virginia employees who were fired by their boss, Sheriff B.J. Roberts. These workers, according to the case files, “hindered the harmony and efficiency of the office.” How? By Liking the Facebook page of the man who was running against Roberts for the office of sheriff.
A young friend whose mother died recently told me how touched she had been by the “thoughtfulness” of so many who had left condolences on her Facebook page after she had announced her Mum’s death.
“Thoughtfulness?” Clicking on the Comment button is hardly “thoughtful”.
Here’s what “thoughtful” is, folks: it’s picking up the phone or going over in person (if you live nearby) to talk – and more importantly, to listen – to your friend’s story. It’s making time in your busy day to stop at the drugstore to select a sympathy card. It’s writing (by hand, with a pen) a personal note to your friend inside the card. It’s buying a stamp and looking up a mailing address and, finally, dropping that card into a mail box. It’s taking the time to order flowers or a fruit basket. It’s making muffins or a casserole or a plate of sandwiches and bringing them over to your friend’s home.
That’s what “thoughtful” looks like.
By comparison, hitting the Comment box and banging off a quick “Sorry for your loss!” on Facebook is NOT thoughtful.
It’s merely a reflexive response on autopilot. It requires, in fact, little if any thought. It’s as personally involved as clicking the Like button.
The book called “Social Trends in American Life” suggests that a shocking 28 percent of us know none of our neighbours by name. We may keep in touch with faraway “friends” on Facebook, but not so much with the folks who live on our street.
When tech entrepreneur Nirav Tolia noticed that we increasingly seem to prefer rubbing elbows online – instead of in real places where real elbows might actually rub – he saw a business opportunity that resulted in his creation of a social network called Nextdoor. It attempts to webify the original social network, in case you really would rather talk online to your closest neighbours instead of chatting to a real live person over the fence or in your condo elevator in order to share babysitter recommendations, meet for after-work drinks or sell that bookcase.
And as Dr. Turkle explains in her book, Alone Together:
“Winston Churchill argued that we shape our buildings, and then they shape us. The same is true of our digital technologies. Technology has become the architect of our intimacies.
“Online, drawn by the illusion of companionship without the demands of intimacy, we confuse the scattershot postings on a Facebook wall with authentic communication.”
“Just because we’ve grown up with the internet, doesn’t mean the internet has grown up”
As much as aging Luddites like me may rail against the decline of face-to-face communication and the simple courtesies of human interaction that we grew up with, the writing is on the (Facebook) wall.
Sadly, as Massachusetts physician, author, researcher and UMass professor of epidemiology Dr. Marya Zilberberg quoted recently in this truism from Max Planck:
“A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”
Think about this. It means that Dr. Sherry Turkle and others like me who share her concerns about this growing sociological trend of texting at funerals, and on first dates, and while out for walks with friends or family (even when you have actual living breathing human beings right beside you) are wasting our breath when we hold up a hesitant hand to say: “Hey, wait a minute!”
We hesitate, in fact, to raise a hand in protest because we believe it would be impolite to do so. Instead, we let the rudeness inherent in these mobile technology behaviours go on.
Dr. Z. has also observed:
“The digital revolution will continue its break-neck pace regardless of my opinions in its quest to take over the world.”
We are in fact a dying breed, we who value things like a phone-free zone at the dinner table (that’s if we can even sit down with our families at the dinner table anymore).
And when we finally die off completely, texting at funerals will no longer be something even worth remarking upon, even to USB geeks.
In fact, they’ll likely be texting at mine.