Rick Holmes: Connection isn’t communication
People are connected like never before, and there must be big money in it. At least that’s what they think on Wall Street, which put a $104 billion pricetag on Facebook’s access to our connections.
I suspect Facebook may be past its peak, but there’s no doubt we’re communicating like crazy. So why does it feel like we’ve never been so disconnected from each other?
Look around you at every public place: at the beach and the gym and in line for coffee; on the bus or on the sidelines at the Little League game. Everyone’s playing with their phones.
Some of them are hurling Angry Birds at egg-stealing pigs, but most of them are communicating, at least in the 21st-century sense of the term. They are texting and tweeting, blogging and reading. They are sending pictures of their dinner to friends in another restaurant who are taking pictures of their dinners.
Is this really communicating? I ask this with some humility as someone with a Facebook page, a Twitter account, a Flickr account (largely inactive) a Tumblr page (under construction) and a long-running blog. There’s no easy answer. I’ve found long-lost friends on Facebook and had some great discussions on my blog.
Still, there’s a one-way character to much of our modern communications. A tweet (for the uninitiated, that’s a message of no more than 140 characters sent out to volunteer “followers” who may or may not be paying attention), is the broadcast of a Twitter user’s passing thought, not a conversation. The message in the new social media, psychologist and MIT professor Sherry Turkle says, is “I share, therefore I am.”
Phones are still being used as telephones, for old-fashioned conversation. Some people wear their cellphones on their ears as a permanent accessory, like earrings. That’s their way of saying “I’m plugged into the world,” which can be a bit confusing for people nearby who wonder if they are talking to them.
For others, earphones are the accessory, their way of saying “I’m plugged into my stuff; leave me alone.” I often wonder how many of these people’s earbuds aren’t really plugged into anything, just shutting out the world.
But texting is overcoming phoning, especially among the young. A Pew study released last fall found that a third of all adults prefer text messages to phone calls. Americans age 18 to 24, the study found, typically send and receive 1,500 text messages a month. It didn’t say how many of those are “Sup?”
All that texting comes at a price. Text-addicted young people don’t have the skills at face-to-face communication they need for success in the adult world. Universities are now offering remedial lessons in interviewing techniques and “dinner etiquette.”
Professors note that students are acquiring other skills, like how to send a text with your phone hidden in your bag, while maintaining eye contact with the teacher.
The new communication, or lack of it, is getting more complicated as our phones get more complicated. Half of all cellphones in America are now smartphones, meaning they are so much more than telephones. They are the greatest multi-purpose tool ever created.
I’ve found myself thinking of my phone as similar to R2-D2 in "Star Wars": It can access any information, perform most any function. It’s there at my side — or in my pocket — ready to be my dictionary, my flashlight, my camera, my map and GPS system, my library, newspaper, radio, TV and stereo.
Increasingly, these pocket computers may be our companions as well. Siri, the voice of the newest iPhone, goes a big step beyond R2-D2’s electronic beeps. Not only can “she” hear and respond to questions and commands, Siri improves her understanding of her user’s language and preferences the more she is used.
Siri traces her lineage back to “Eliza,” a computer program invented at MIT in the ‘60s as a parody of psychotherapists. If you said “I feel blue,” Eliza would pick up on a key word and turn it back on you. “What makes you feel blue?” “I’m fighting with my father” would elicit “What’s the problem between you and your father?”
Eliza’s inventor, Joseph Weizenbaum, pulled the plug on the project and dropped out of the artificial intelligence field after finding students and colleagues, even those who knew there was no real person in the computer, spending hours sharing their deepest feelings with a machine.
Steve Jobs, the father of the iPhone, preferred to do his negotiating face-to-face during long walks, instead of trading texts and emails. He was introduced to a Siri-enhanced phone during a visit to Apple headquarters near the end of his life. In his excellent biography, Walter Isaacson reports Jobs spent an hour trying to stump the machine, and thought he’d succeeded by asking “are you a man or a woman?”
Siri paused quite awhile before responding that “they did not assign me a gender.”
Turkle says she has talked with people who say they are looking forward to the time when Siri can be “more like a best friend.”
“We expect more from technology and less from one another,” she wrote in The New York Times. We are “drawn to technologies that provide the illusion of companionship without the demands of relationship.”
I’ve long hoped that the Internet’s most profound achievement would be the end of loneliness. Thanks to technology, I’ve figured, some isolated kid in East Nowhere, Nebraska, with a passion for French philosophy could go online and form a bond chatting about Camus with a like-minded spirit in France.
That world is here, and there’s no denying progress has been made. But the more connected we become, the more we see that genuine communication is a lot more complicated than sending words across long distances, and that real friendship takes more than clicking a button on Facebook.
Rick Holmes, opinion editor for the MetroWest (Mass.) Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. He can be followed on Twitter at @holmesandco, reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or contacted the old-fashioned way by calling (508) 626-3932.