Is it a telephone or a television? That was the fundamental question I heard Harvard Professor Robert Putnam ask nearly 20 years ago when pondering this new thing called the “internet.” He had come to speak with a gathering of community foundation executives to ask for assistance (and funding) for his largest-ever study of civic engagement. Putnam would eventually write the landmark book on social capital, Bowling Alone. It began with the simple observation that while Americans might be bowling as much as ever, we no longer bowl in leagues. Instead, we tend to go bowling alone.
During that meeting of several decades ago, Putnam noted that the telephone had proven to be an invaluable tool for building community. Before the advent of texting and smartphones, a telephone had only one use, namely, to enable us to talk with another human being. As such, an old-fashioned telephone is a tremendous technology that enables greater two-way communication between people. That fosters stronger human relationships and thus builds community.
A television, on the other hand, does just the opposite. Rather than build reciprocal relationships between real people, Putnam noted that a television gives us only an illusion of intimacy. We feel like we’re part of the circle of “friends” we see on TV, but as we “connect” with the digital images on the screen we’re actually disconnecting from human relationships in the real world.
Thus when Putnam wondered aloud whether the internet would prove to be more like a telephone or television, he was pondering whether this new technology would enhance our inter-personal relationships or replace them.
In my last column I wrote about a remarkable new book, Reclaiming Conversation, by clinical psychologist and renowned MIT professor Sherry Turkle. My purpose was to inspire people to use the occasion of our annual Door County Reads to foster greater conversation between people. This month I want to highlight another aspect of Turkle’s book – the impact that social media is having on our society.
Putnam’s Bowling Alone was published in 2001. That was three years before Facebook was launched and six years before the first iPhone. While Putnam was writing his book, the average American used their old flip phone to send fewer than half of one text message every month. Today, that number has grown to 3,853. Turkle asks us to consider the enormous implications of this change by looking at how we do the most basic and human of things – how we say “I’m sorry.”
It’s always been hard to sit down with someone face-to-face and say you’re sorry when you’ve made a mistake. Yet now we can choose alternatives that are far less stressful. We no longer have to look the other person in the eye. We can simply type “I’m sorry” in an email or text, then press send. If we really want the person to know how truly and deeply sorry we are, we might even put a little sad face at the end of our message.
An “I’m sorry” offered on-screen, even with the sincerest of intentions, is a poor substitute for a face-to-face conversation. For when we look each other in the eyes as I apologize, I can see on your face the pain that I caused you. You can hear in my words and see in my hunched body how embarrassed I am and how deeply I regret my behavior. It is in this moment which forgiveness can become real and our relationship has a chance to renew.
The very first generation of adults whose formative years included a smartphone in their pocket is now entering the workforce. Turkle shares the results of her countless interviews with human resource managers who find that too many young people not only cannot say they’re sorry face to face, they choose email or text as the preferred means to communicate any uncomfortable topic. When people say they’re addicted to their iPhones, they are not only saying that they want what their phones provide. They are also saying they don’t want what their iPhones allow them to avoid.
We don’t live in a silent world of no talk, but we drop in and out of the talk we have. Turkle notes that we have very little patience for talk that demands sustained attention. When talk becomes difficult or when talk turns to quiet, we’ve given ourselves permission to go elsewhere. So we pick up our iPhones and turn to our screens.
We haven’t stopped talking, but we opt out, often unconsciously, of the kind of conversation that requires our full attention. Every time you check your phone in the company of others, what you gain is a hit of stimulation, but what you lose is that which a friend, colleague, teacher, spouse, parent or child thinks and feels, and was trying to share with you.
I was recently reading an article about how Facebook creates a sense of community online by bringing together people with similar ideas or common beliefs. I normally like to tell you where I read good ideas so that you can seek them out on your own. Yet this article was insightful only insofar as it doesn’t realize how stupid it really is.
Yes, social media can be a good way to share ideas. Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter – whatever the social media tool of the day – do in fact create a sense of community. That is a good thing, but there are enormous limitations. For that’s all it is, a sense of community.
William Deresiewicz, former Yale Professor and author of Excellent Sheep, writes that as our communities have atrophied, we have moved from living in actual communities to making efforts as though we are living in them. He says that when we talk about communities now, we have moved “from a relationship to a feeling.” In other words, Deresiewicz argues we have moved from being an actual community to merely having a sense of community. Or as Turkle puts it, technology gives us the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship.
Now I’m not as pessimistic as Deresiewicz. Nor am I so quick to condemn the smartphone, or Facebook, or any of this technology. Facebook is a wonderful way for people like me to keep in touch with far away loved ones as well as communicate with those who are near. The tools are not the problem. You can avoid uncomfortable conversations on and off the internet. Your iPhone just makes it easier.
Our challenge is how to use these tools. When someone posts on Facebook about the death of their loved one and you respond by posting a sad face, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. In fact, it can be the first step of empathy. Yet if we want to build a relationship, if we value real community over just a sense of community, we must go beyond just staring at words on a screen and move our interaction into the real world. The sad face you post on Facebook or in an email is a start. Everything depends on what you do next.
This column by Bret Bicoy originally appeared in the Peninsula Pulse on March 3, 2017.