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Connecting and Disconnecting

We have become a society of people who avoid each other. Our instinct is no longer to extend ourselves to help a fellow human being in need, but rather to protect ourselves, our feelings, our time. We hide. We prefer to be alone. We prefer to sit back and observe. We prefer to climb inside our devices than to live out in the world.

We screen our calls. We send 10 texts rather than make a one-minute phone call. We don’t reply to emails. We cross to the other side of the street. We stare at our phone in the elevator. We avoid making eye contact. We pray we’ll get their voicemail. We hold the door-close button when we see them coming.

It wasn’t more than a couple generations ago that people would sit on chairs outside their home waiting to see who would walk by. It wasn’t that long ago that people would stop by one another’s homes unannounced. We used to crave face-to-face connection; now we evade it.

Each step ‘forward’ has made it easier, just a little, to avoid the emotional work of being present, to convey information rather than humanity.”

~ Jonathan Safran Foer, How Not to Be Alone

So how is this impacting us? We are so plugged in that we are losing our ability to connect. The less present we are in our own bodies and with others, the less capacity we have for empathy and compassion. The less we’re able to fulfill another person’s needs (or even want to!), and the less we’re able to have our needs fulfilled in return.

We are losing our ability to live a compassionate life because we’re so out of practice. That leads us to make more assumptions about other people based on our own experiences — the only thing we know. And it turns out we don’t know anything.

We are knowing ourselves less and less, and we’re feeling powerless as a result. Because we’re hunched over our computers, hunched over our phones and tablets, our heart centers are facing down — towards our devices. Our backs are to the world. And this posture is negatively affecting our own views of self-worth and our capacity for self-awareness. How we pose shapes how we feel. All these distractions, the lack of physical motion, and the lack of presence all combines to disconnect us not only from one another, but from ourselves.

Simone Weil wrote, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” By this definition, our relationships to the world, and to one another, and to ourselves, are becoming increasingly miserly.

We often use technology to save time, but increasingly, it either takes the saved time along with it, or makes the saved time less present, intimate and rich. I worry that the closer the world gets to our fingertips, the further it gets from our hearts. It’s not an either/or — being “anti-technology” is perhaps the only thing more foolish than being unquestioningly “pro-technology” — but a question of balance that our lives hang upon.”

Read more of Jonathan Safran Foer’s eloquent thoughts on the topic in Sunday’s NY Times article How Not to Be Alone.

In the coming weeks, I’l be writing more on how to combat this by developing greater presence –- to better our attention to ourselves and to others. Being present requires being mindful, and there are a whole slew of techniques for developing mindfulness. Stay tuned.

Thanks to Andrew Maier for sharing this article with me.

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  • Ronnie

    Whitney, if you haven’t yet you need to read Sherri Turkle’s Alone Together. Many of us are pondering the longer term effects of this on our collective experience, and what impact it could have on how we consider what we create for tomorrow.

  • Jason Neel

    Oh man, do I resemble all of this. I’m really looking forward to what you have to say in the coming weeks, Whitney. Good start so far.

  • Amy Marquez

    Sobering observations. I found myself wanting to argue (defensively) with some of the points, but my own arguments come full circle and reinforce what you wrote. For example, I have a relative who has a clinically diagnosed problem associating with people – Asperger’s – and I’m in much better contact with him since the advent of email, text and IM.

    That’s great, but what all these distant forms of communication do is enable him to stay distant from people, rather than encouraging him to try to develop closer, more personal relationships. So all of this advanced communication technology is a double-edged sword for him.

    Then there’s the fact that I have to remind myself to find a balance in time spent working and time spent with my family. I shouldn’t have to remind myself of that at all. But the ability to work from home at will and keep in constant contact with project teams has blurred the lines between my passion for my work and my love and attention to my family.

    Thanks for writing this. It made me reexamine some of my own habits.

  • http://thedataqualitychronicle.org/ William Sharp

    As usual, this is well written and insightful. I see much of what you have written in myself and the others around me. I liked the part about losing empathy with others because of the fact that we are becoming more and more absorbed in our virtual worlds. This, however, will reach a tipping point and relent (I hope)

  • Bradley Hebdon

    Such a relevant topic Whitney — I’m really looking forward to your future posts on this topic. I struggle with this on a professional level. That is, I’m creating experiences that either reward or support this behavior. :(

  • Martha

    Hi Whitney, I like to think what you describe is the digital abyss. Thanks for highlighting the problem. It’s too easy to ‘get lost’ in our percieved self importance, to be available at all times to everyone online, but to no one in a real personal way. Too many of us are scared to bare our true selves to others as though we are showing weakness. We make our own choices about how we live our lives and with whom we spend our time. It’s increasingly challenging to be balanced.

    fyi… We still sit out on our porch to see who walks by, we have people drop in unannounced, we live a balanced life.

  • http://www.amananderson.com/ aman anderson

    Wow. I’ve waited all my years to find an article with such passion and truth. It is time we take a critical look at these new advancements in communication.

  • Corey L. Robertson

    I was just thinking today that picking up the phone to call anyone that’s not immediate family is probably my 4th option behind text, email, twitter or facebook.

  • Allison

    This article set the tone and became a call to action for my day yesterday: to make eye contact, to say what needs to be said, to attend and listen and keep working through conversations until both parties are sure they understand each other. Thank you!

  • Raffi

    “a guy on the street calling his mom on the balcony, people passing by greeting each other, the bakery filling the basket that was brought down from the 3rd floor neighbor down to the bakery shop, older men gathered at the pavement, in front of one of the shops, on a game of backgammon, etc, etc, etc” a typical Lebanese (Middle East) environment, that is still in touch with each other (even though there are signs of individualism in other areas)

  • Alex Kim

    We all remember when everything wasn’t so digital, and yet we became this way. What’s scary is the next generation who are born in the digital age, and how they may never know any different. Without careful guidance from parents and people like us who “remember,” this will only become worse exponentially.

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  • Arlene

    Thank you for sharing this Whitney. I think people in modern society are losing their ability to socialize and communicate face to face. At a family dinner, children are focused on their mobile devices rather than participating in conversation. We no longer have to remember phone numbers, directions or how to spell words. Modern technology cuts both ways. When our batteries run out, what are we left with? A black screen; a blank memory drive; loss of words; fear of asking for direction.

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  • morgan haines

    I’ve been struggling with this quite a bit lately and it’s left me feeling disconnected. I try to connect and get out of my technology as much as possible, but often times it doesn’t seem like that effort is duplicated among others. Interesting topic for sure, which I’m sure will spark an ongoing discussion!

  • http://tamishaford.com/ Tamisha Ford

    Whitney – somehow I just found you. I love this piece and I look forward to more of your work and writing. This is fantastic.

  • vickytnz

    I do think that you need to put a check on some of the assumptions here, namely that things were great and friendly when we all talked to each other. Not necessarily. There could be incredibly bigotry and pressure to be part of the herd. One of the findings from the guy that went a year without internet http://www.theverge.com/2013/5/1/4279674/im-still-here-back-online-after-a-year-without-the-internet is that he felt incredibly lonely without being able to connect. As much as this is a sign that we connect through the internet these days, it’s still a reminder that life could be pretty crap when you couldn’t find your community and didn’t fit the norm.

    There’s been an annoying slew of movies about people going back to their small town roots and finding what they missed (Sweet Home Alabama, New In Town etc etc). I always hold up Muriel’s Wedding for a sign of having no one to connect back to (Porpoise Spit is the hell hole of lost ambition and casual judgement that all too many people have to escape). Sure sometimes we need to be more open, but sometimes where we are isn’t open back.