Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Human Touch

We're currently living in an amazingly connected world, thanks to 24-hour news channels, satellite TV/telephone, the internet, social networks, 3G notworks, cell phone and other innovations.  Because we are such a connected world, last week I was able to sit and watch live streaming broadcast of parts of the rescue of 33 Chilean miners, broadcast by a British television company.  Forget two places at once, I was (virtually) in three places at once.  More if you count the fact that I was on the Tor network while doing all this, so there were at least three other intermediary locations as well.  In many ways, we've condensed the globe down to the size of computer chip.

But more importantly- do you know all the neighbors on your street?  If you were out of flour, would you have to go to the store or could you ask a friend next door?  With internet bullying in the forefront the past couple of weeks, I think we really need to consider our reactions to the virtual world and the physical world.  I'm not knocking the virtual world- I think the interconnectedness is great.  We can experience other cultures, get our news from a variety of sources, learn about so much more than our own little block, but it's for sure not the end-all-be-all, and it's important to keep that in perspective.

As humans, we're social beings and wired with the need for interaction with others.  There's variation in how much interaction we need or want; ask an introvert and an extrovert how much time they like to be with people in a given day and you'll get vastly different responses.  But besides the variation in quantity, there's also variation in quality.  In person contact makes the biggest difference in our lives, with phone contact coming in close.  Written letters make a fair amount of difference in how connected we feel to people, although virtual communication over the internet registers as almost nothing positive psychologically.  Especially in times of stress, we need human contact.  We need to feel like we belong.  We need to feel like we have a place to turn.  We need a shoulder upon which to cry.  We don't get those things from the newer forms of communication.  Instead, most people tend to feel less connected.  There is no human touch like in a hand written letter, no quick response like a phone call, and definitely no physical connection or facial display of empathy.  When the chips are already proverbially down, that added draw on our emotional reserves can be tragic.

Additionally, the anonymity of the internet allows people to not have to face the consequences of their actions, so the norm of being civil gets broken down.  Unfortunately, it's harder to break down our need for empathy.  All in all, moving more and more of our communication into the virtual world leaves fewer of our social needs met.  At its worst, we end up with situations like some of the recent bullying and harassment cases, and as we've seen, potential to tragic deaths.  Figuring out how to navigate this brave new world is going to have more bumps along the road, but I'm hopeful that we'll manage to figure it out.

And yes, I get the irony of writing this all on a blog instead of calling to talk to someone about it.  :)

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