A network-less world

I’ve been thinking a lot about our relationship with technology and social media recently (predominantly Facebook, Twitter and Instagram) and its effect on our brains. I suspect this has a lot to do with reading Jorg Colberg’s post “After Social Media”, which I recommend you read. Personally, I’ve never felt more disconnected from society than I do now, despite having infinitely more ways to communicate with others online.

One shift in my own mindset in the last ~year is that I don’t feel the blind optimism about big tech I did a few years ago. The privacy scandals and security leaks are no longer barriers to technological progress for me; they’re very real issues for everyday folk, who likely don’t realise the extent to which their data is being sold, distributed and hacked. It’s scary to imagine how easy it is to impersonate someone online using a social media profile or an email address today. As an aside, my father was the victim of an email account hack last year and fortunately we were able to deal with the situation together, but the experience was frightening for someone who only uses the internet to read email and view a handful of websites.

Even moreso however, I reject the idea that social media is bringing us together. If anything, it’s doing quite the opposite.

Our use of social media continues to replace daily human interactions with digital ones. Friends at parties glance at Instagram while conversations are taking place in the room. Commuters on the tube scroll through the Facebook statuses of friends they haven’t spoken to in years. In waiting rooms, we turn to Twitter for moderate entertainment; heaven forbid that we might have to stop for a moment to think about our lives. Ironically in the face of countless new messaging apps, our ability to communicate with each another is worse than ever.

A lack of face-to-face communication has eroded our ability to empathise or acknowledge others’ opinions. In fact, research has even linked the presence of mobile phones to our inability to give help to or smile at others in public, or express emotion. Rare is it that one finds public discussion online that doesn’t end in some kind of heated argument; Social networks goad us into sharing polarising opinions, propagating the idea that everyone in our network is aligned in their views and diminishing our ability to respectfully disagree for fear of being disliked.

As a society we’ve lost the sense of camraderie for our fellow humans we once had; As the boundaries between our real and digital selves merge, we’re only obliged to treat strangers with the same level of respect as we do online. When was it no longer considered rude to not make enough room for other pedestrians to pass on the street? When did we stop thanking the bus driver? When did it become okay to barge past others in crowded places?

Often I try to picture the world my parents grew up in and imagine how our lives would be different without mobile phones, instant messaging and social media. How would I know which train to take? How would I let my friend know I was going to be late? What if my bookshop didn’t stock the book I wanted? Of course for anyone over ~25, these are trivial problems. I’d ask the conductor which train to catch, meet my friend where we agreed on the phone and ask the bookshop to order in the book I wanted (albeit slower than if ordered online). The apparent problems technology’s created are products of its own doing.

If the key to having better relationships is spending more time together, why have social networks at all?