Have you ever driven a group of teenagers somewhere and wondered why they weren’t talking to each other? After a brief moment you then realize that they all have a cell phone in their laps, which they are engrossed in. This is what I call an “elsewhere moment,” an occasion where we discover that those who are with us are not really with us. They are elsewhere.
Technology brings us both closer together and further apart. I can quickly get updates on what my “friends” are up to while I am sitting alone in front of my computer or somewhere else by myself. I can find out what people I knew many years ago are doing and thinking in real time. Yet, at the same time, I usually don’t know what my kids are thinking about, as I watch their intent faces lit up by the lights of their cell phones. I worry what this hyper-connected, elsewhere generation will be like.
As someone who scores something like a 110 on the scale for introversion, being able to personally distance myself from and gain control over communication has huge psychological advantages. Email is a lifesaver in this regard. With email, I can communicate with people on my own terms, on my own schedule, at my own pace. I’m not someone who thinks with my mouth open, which is disconcerting to people (such as my lovely, extroverted spouse), who are made nervous or frustrated by my pauses or delayed responses. A few weeks ago a colleague in psychology asked me in the elevator if I was OK. He was worried that my glazed over stare might be a seizure.
For me, cell phones are blessing and a curse. I can communicate easily with my family, as when I just texted my teenage daughter that we wouldn’t be able to go skiing this afternoon (bummer!). This type of communication is highly effective and efficient. Yet I enjoy my cell phone the most when I don’t know where it is. I have always hated phones, and the cell phone just expounds the torture by having the phone actually follow me around. I like a world where I am accessible but not immediately reachable, except when I want to be (and except by said lovely spouse and family, of course). Periodically the dean’s office sends instructions that they want faculty cell phone numbers. Yeah, right, like I’m going to give the dean’s office my cell phone number!
Our elsewhere world makes new, strange things possible. A couple of years ago I a wrote and published a paper with three scholars from another university. The strange part is that I have never, to this day, spoken with two of those co-authors, including the leader author (who I think is a woman, but I’m not actually sure). This is sort of cool, but sort of creepy, too. Somewhat ironically the study was about the positive effects of marriage on cancer survival—in other words the positive health effects of real, human relationships on our well-being. People are sharing more private information with more people than ever before, yet many normal aspects of human activity are being sucked into cyberspace with real human connection stripped out. My kids can spend hours on their cell phones, but they rarely talk on them.
Our new world continually blurs the distinction between public and private. People are sharing very private things with wide numbers of people, and public events are more and more often experienced privately. These trends began with telephones, radio, and television, but have now escalated to a new level. People are about as likely to produce and distribute a photo or video as they are to receive them. Much good has come from this (like this blog, for instance!), but we have also sullied and cheapened public discourse, as so much of public communication happens in real time, without reflection, editing or consideration. And, more seriously, we have democratized the production of indecency. It used to be that those seeking obscene materials had to hunt them down. Now we have to build barriers to protect ourselves and our families from the onslaught of filth the world is constantly dumping on us. This comes not only from the commercial slime producers but increasingly from “normal” people over phones and other devices.
Recently, we had the national fixation with Manti Te’o, the Notre Dame football star who was mourning the death of his girlfriend. Turns out he never had a girlfriend, and it seems quite plausible that he never knew this. Perhaps he was complicit in all of this to gain publicity, but it seems more likely that he really was duped. The strange thing is that given the elsewhere world in which we live, it isn’t that hard to believe. I’ve known kids whose number of Facebook friends numbers over a 1,000. Certainly, many of these people are casual acquaintances at best, and many times people’s only real connection has been a friend of a friend coming through on social media or through a text. From what I’ve heard, social media sites, chat rooms, and dating services are filled with people who are much different than they say they are. Our natural inclinations towards trust are being exploited and manipulated. People develop strong connections that turn out not to be connections at all.
In an elsewhere world, imaginary girlfriends are not that strange. Certainly no more strange than prominent Congressmen sexting indecent images of themselves to women they barely know. People now communicate with others who are both anywhere and nowhere,
My sense is that our technologies will not conquer us. Our primal human urges for real connections and real relationships will continue, even as the boundaries between the cyber world and the real world continue to blur. I’m doing my part. For instance, my smart phone has all kinds of voice recognition capabilities, but I refuse to use them. I can talk through my cell phone, but actually talking to it makes me very uncomfortable, even dirty. I won’t do it.
I’m also trying to teach my kids the importance of being here and now, rather than always being elsewhere. Of course this would be easier if hanging out with real people weren’t such a challenge!
Some problems have been around forever.