Alone with everyone: Is technology making us more distant?


First aired on Q (15/01/13)

With nearly every moment of our lives captured by camera phone, documented and shared on social networks, and borderless discussions abounding on blogs and comments forums, we appear to live in a time of unprecedented communication and connectivity.

But why do so many of us feel alone? According to recent surveys, nearly 20 per cent of Americans report that they feel very isolated. This isn't surprising to writer and social critic Giles Slade, author of The Big Disconnect: The Story of Technology and Loneliness. He argues that our society has been growing more distant since the industrial revolution, when people left the "family hearth at home" to compete for jobs in the big cities. And each technological innovation that has come since -- the car, the television, the record player, the smart phone -- has been further disconnecting our communities.

Slade says he began seriously thinking about this after travelling through the Middle East and returning back to North America. The experience of going from bustling marketplaces to the efficient, but sterile kiosks and sales desks, really jarred him.

"I was really struck by the interpersonal coldness of North America, as opposed to countries in the Arab world where the exchange of goods -- every exchange, every interaction -- is really an occasion to encounter a new human being and enjoy a relationship with them. So this game of bargaining that they play, you know for pennies, is really just an excuse to develop a relationship between the seller and the buyer."

With each technological development, we gained convenience and efficiency, but often at the cost of social interaction. Before cars became widely affordable, people relied on walking, streetcars or trains for transportation, which presented ample opportunity to form relationships with people you'd likely see often on your commute. Before televisions were in every home, people went to theatres or live events for their entertainment. Another fascinating example of how technology has affected our socialization is how we enjoy music.

Music has been a connecting force for centuries. Slade says that 150 years ago, it was very common for people in North America and Europe to collectively sing in the workplaces. Fisherman had sea shanties. Cotton mill workers had their own tunes. American blues has its roots in the work songs and spirituals of Africa-American workers during slave times. People would attend live music shows, dance, and be a part of the festivities.

But then the phonograph made it possible to listen to music in the privacy of one's own home. And then headphones allowed individuals to listen to music completely by themselves. Then, portable devices let people listen to their own music all day long, never sharing the experience. Listening to music you enjoy, Slade says, is "inherently psychobiochemical" -- the experience of it causes your brain to release the comfort-inducing hormone oxytocin, the same hormone we feel when we're bonding with people we love. But while dancing solo to your favourite tune will give you a quick hit, Slade says we're missing the more satisfying experience of sharing that music or participating with others.

big-disconnect-cover-110.jpgBut what about the mass discussions and connections one can make via Twitter and Facebook? Don't those count as legitimate community experiences? Sure, Slade says, but this kind of engagement is more often than not on a fairly shallow level.

"They're your friends until you un-friend them," he argues. "You don't share deep interpersonal information with them, and they can't satisfy the longing for deep relationships."

It's the latter kind of relationships that Slade is concerned our society is losing -- the people that you rely on in a time of crises, people you can reach out to, people that can physically be there for you. And in times of grave consequence (natural disasters, for instance), Slade says that the isolated individuals in our society -- the ones without close friends to lean on -- will be at the most risk.

"Our survival depends on our ability to connect to other people."

Related links: