Gain­ing the world – los­ing souls

Con­nec­tiv­ity erodes true con­nec­tion and em­pa­thy


IN 2002, the Pew Re­search Cen­tre used the term “dig­i­tal dis­con­nect” to de­scribe the gap be­tween in­ter­net-savvy stu­dents and the school sys­tem that had not yet recog­nised the ed­u­ca­tional value of the in­ter­net. An­other form of a dig­i­tal dis­con­nect may be psy­cho­log­i­cal.

The dig­i­tal psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­con­nect – that of di­min­ished emo­tional aware­ness and con­nec­tions – can emerge when a so­ci­ety in­creas­ingly in­ter­acts more with de­vices than di­rectly with peo­ple. Some of the routes may be as fol­lows:

● A dig­i­tal com­mu­nity al­lows for a blunt and trun­cated ex­pres­sion of thoughts (for ex­am­ple, text mes­sages) and emo­tions (for ex­am­ple, emo­jis).

● Its anonymity em­bold­ens peo­ple to ex­press harsh opin­ions about oth­ers or their en­deav­ours.

● It al­lows for in­stant cy­berspace-avail­able judge­ments about oth­ers that are wide­spread and dif­fi­cult to delete.

● A de­crease in the in­ti­mate and private ex­pres­sion of emo­tions re­gard­ing one­self and oth­ers.

If dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­comes the pre­dom­i­nant way of in­ter­act­ing with oth­ers, we may risk los­ing the abil­ity to “read” sub­tle fa­cial ex­pres­sions in com­mu­ni­ca­tion, recog­nise psy­cho­log­i­cal bound­aries, and un­der­stand – through see­ing and ex­pe­ri­enc­ing – how our com­mu­ni­ca­tions af­fect oth­ers.

More pro­foundly, if dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­comes the main mode of re­lat­ing, it may ren­der face-to-face in­ter­per­sonal in­ter­ac­tions alien and un­com­fort­able, and lead to th­ese be­ing avoided.

His­tor­i­cally, we can read­ily ob­serve how tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tions have af­fected and shaped our so­cial in­ter­ac­tions. For ex­am­ple, it can be ar­gued that tele­vi­sion strongly in­flu­enced our ideas of fam­ily (of­ten in an ide­alised form), be­came the “babysit­ter”, and in many ways changed fam­ily dy­nam­ics – for ex­am­ple, many fam­i­lies were more likely to watch a TV fam­ily in­ter­act­ing in a di­rect and dis­clos­ing man­ner than to en­gage in such com­mu­ni­ca­tion with mem­bers of their fam­ily.

While the dig­i­tal age im­bues our life with in­stan­ta­neous and wide-rang­ing con­nec­tiv­ity, it also cre­ates pseudo-con­nec­tiv­ity, where “friends” may num­ber in the “thou­sands”, yet there may not be a sin­gle liv­ing, breath­ing per­son with whom there is a true emo­tional con­nec­tion.

Hu­man psy­chol­ogy is “hard­wired” to­wards a de­sire to fit in with oth­ers. Be­long­ing re­mains crit­i­cal to a sense of one’s well-be­ing. Psy­cho­log­i­cally, that sense of “I don’t fit in” can be dev­as­tat­ing.

When one feels dis­con­nected it may lead to feel­ing “less than” oth­ers. It may en­gen­der a sense of alien­ation, lack of val­i­da­tion, and feel­ing judged and re­jected. Or it can re­sult in rage – think of the vi­o­lence com­mit­ted by the alien­ated, iso­lated in­di­vid­ual. Or, it may con­trib­ute to be­ing risk-aver­sive, and re­sult in avoid­ing oth­ers for fear of re­jec­tion or dis­com­fort. In­ter­est­ingly, dis­con­nec­tion was ob­served even be­fore the dig­i­tal age.

In the 1950s, the­olo­gian Paul Til­lich noted this para­dox: as Amer­i­cans ex­pe­ri­enced bur­geon­ing pros­per­ity, there was also a grow­ing sense of de­tach­ment and ques­tion­ing. Til­lich la­belled this “non-be­ing”, or psy­cho­log­i­cal empti­ness ex­pe­ri­enced as a sense of be­ing cut off from oth­ers, from the cre­ative forces around one­self, and of the con­nec­tiv­ity to oth­ers. While Til­lich iden­ti­fied the postWorld War II pe­riod as the “age of anx­i­ety”, in the 21st cen­tury there may be an even more pro­found dis­con­nec­tion.

Yet it must be recog­nised that the dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion has had a pos­i­tive im­pact for many in their abil­ity to form in­ter­per­sonal re­la­tion­ships. For ex­am­ple, the in­creas­ing pop­u­lar­ity of com­puter dat­ing sites has led to nu­mer­ous matches and longterm in­ti­mate re­la­tion­ships and mar­riages.

Also, peo­ple seek­ing oth­ers with sim­i­lar be­liefs or hob­bies have formed close bonds through their in­ter­net con­nec­tions.

An iso­lated or home-bound per­son who may not have had the means to meet some­one with sim­i­lar in­ter­ests can now reach out and find like-minded peo­ple through chat rooms.

Clearly, any ac­tiv­ity taken to the ex­treme or used ex­clu­sively runs the risk of lim­it­ing a per­son’s po­ten­tial to de­velop other chan­nels and op­por­tu­ni­ties for emo­tional con­nect­ed­ness.

The crit­i­cal is­sue to con­sider is whether the next wave of tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances will ren­der phys­i­cal hu­man con­nec­tiv­ity ir­rel­e­vant. Can all our needs be met vir­tu­ally?

Does the dig­i­tal world we now in­habit run the risk of cre­at­ing a gen­er­a­tion of emo­tion­ally avoidant, de­tached, and blunted peo­ple? Or per­haps overly self-fo­cused in­di­vid­u­als who lack em­pa­thy for oth­ers – that is, a so­ci­ety, com­posed at best of mis­fits and at worst of psy­chopaths?

Some peo­ple may dis­miss th­ese con­cerns, at­tribut­ing them to techno­pho­bic fear­mon­gers. But that misses the point of the ques­tion­ing – which is to be mind­ful of what we lose when we un­think­ingly em­brace tech­nol­ogy.

Pos­i­tive emo­tional and phys­i­cal con­nec­tions to peo­ple lead to em­pa­thy, which is a pro­found di­men­sion of the hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence.

It is what pro­motes kind­ness, con­cern, and al­tru­ism. It feeds the hu­man spirit and it is some­thing we don’t want to lose. ● Dr Shoba Sreeni­vasan and Dr Linda E Weinberger are the authors of Psy­cho­log­i­cal Nu­tri­tion. Learn more at www.psy­cho­log­i­cal­nu­tri­

The vir­tual world could blunt us as hu­mans.

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