Does Technology Make Us More Alone?
An Examination of Humankind’s Relationship with Modern Models of Communication & More in the Post-iPhone/Post-iTunes World
You’ve doubtlessly seen it for yourself when commuting to work—A sea of people crisscrossing each other with arms extended, staring blankly at their cell phones, nearly getting hit by cars as they blindly step off the curb.
They walk around in circles, phones held aloft, trying to get a connection. It’s something of a metaphor for what we are going to talk about here: Loneliness and disconnect.
As technology has evolved one would think we have evolved along with it, but the problem may be more complex than that.
If we take a closer look at the fabric of our modern lives and the ways in which technology is embedded in that fabric, we come to realize that, perhaps, our relationship with it has caused us to devolve rather than evolve.
Past generations have sought to have social interaction and to network with colleagues by going out to bars, restaurants and night clubs. The contemporary person largely avoids these physical spaces in favor of a life online.
Where our forebears took long walks on intimate dates and engaged in face-to-face conversation—where they could see their date’s immediate reaction—we DM our prospective mate’s profile and sit, perched and anxious, on the edge of our seat, wondering why it is taking them so long to respond to our messages.
Instead of hitting up a matinee, we “Netflix and chill.” Or so we say, but signs point to the chill part being B.S. In fact, studies say that millennials are having less sex than people have had in the last sixty years!
That’s some serious inertia in the area of ugly-bumping. The stats suggest that we’d rather send a Tweet or binge on Shondaland than shake out our old birthday suit.
As actress Charleze deGuzman explored in her somewhat satirical and somewhat sullen video “I Forgot My Phone,” we are living an insular life thanks to the technology we depend upon.
It is a lifestyle that is arguably unhealthy, an argument that we will have here as we explore just what technology and the new world’s status quo does for us and to us.
Anger, Crime & Other Ugliness in the Information Age
One thing is fairly inarguable about modern technology: The home computer has been as much of a boon as it has been a bane.
The introduction of the Worldwide Web to the general public has resulted in a truly innovative and beneficial experience for most (not all).
The Web has enabled writers, administrators and other business professionals to more efficiently and expediently research relevant subject matter and better educate themselves on any number of issues, both historical and current.
In 2014, a person posted to Quora, posing the question, “What has the Internet done for mankind?” They only got two responses, but they were nothing if not illuminating.
Patrick Donoghue, a lover of research, responded to the post, writing, “The day is fast coming when the sum total of human knowledge will be available at the fingertips of the common person.”
In direct response to the question posed, Donughue says, “In the past, I would have spent quite a bit of time in the university library. Today, I get better information in minutes versus hours.”
He goes on to say that crowdfunding sites, such as Kickstarter, have put humankind into a “trajectory of tremendous unrelenting technological change, geometric in progression and soon to go logarithmic.”
And he goes on to make an extremely valid point about the ephemeral nature of technology, a point that is more than a little perturbing when we consider the possible psychological ramifications of tech companies’ planned obsolescence.
Planned Obsolescence: When Companies Decide ‘What’s Cool’… and What Isn’t
Most consumers are no doubt familiar with the concept of planned obsolescence, particularly since it is something we must deal with on a constant basis.
How many times have you had to buy a new pair of sneakers because your old ones’ soles came apart and looked like they were poised to yammer at you?
And sneakers are the least of it; think about how many times you’ve had to reboot your iPad or close out all windows on your iPhone and power it off in an effort to get pages to load properly without freezing.
Why does this happen? Because of planned obsolescence, a business strategy that ensures that consumers will continue to purchase product from a company, if for no other reason than they have no other choice.
If you need your iPhone to work so that you can communicate with your loved ones and your colleagues at the office, what’re you gonna do? You’re going to buy another phone.
Every year Apple comes out with an upgraded model of their iPhone and consumers lumber off to Apple stores in droves. They assemble in long line ups that resemble nothing so much as the zombie masses clustered together in an episode of The Walking Dead.
One would think that these crowd situations would bring people closer together, that they would permit a lonely person the opportunity to connect with their fellow human beings and forge some new relationships. By and large, this just isn’t the case.
On the contrary, these massive technology-fueled social gatherings tend to tap into the basest anti-social instincts of the consumers in question.
When Tech Mania Turns Violent
Back in 2013, PC Mag reported on the violence that was sparked by the release of the latest iPhone.
They documented cases of domestic disturbance, theft and trespassing that were a direct and/or indirect result of demand for iPhone 5s and 5c. This included the arrest of three persons in California after fights were incited in front of the Pasadena Apple Store.
Sadly, these weren’t isolated incidents either; in 2011, a fight broke out in Beijing over the iPhone 4 which left multiple people injured.
This is nothing new, of course, as public incidents of mass violence and panic have become something of a national past time and a bit of an inevitable prelude to the holiday season (see: Black Friday).
Technology as a tonic for loneliness is also something that is up for debate. A case could be made for technology as something which has saved many a sexless, solitary person’s life.
Online pornography, web cam models and sexy anime apps have given the lonely a digital playground on which to delve deep into their secret desires and fantasies.
One could even argue that the streets are safer thanks to the availability of more extreme sub-genres of adult entertainment. After all, it is better for some frustrated, ego-compromised shut-in to watch a simulated rape video on Kink instead of going out and taking his hate-fueled sexual proclivities out on an actual pedestrian.
On the flip side, technology can be a conduit for crimes, many of them sexual in nature. Back in 2003, online child pornography made headlines when The Who guitarist Pete Townshend was arrested for possession of child porn.
His computer was seized and pictures of children in compromised positions were discovered on his PC. At the time, Townshend insisted that he was innocent and that the materials that were uncovered were part of a research project he was undertaking.
Regardless, two things were made clear: 1) Townshend wasn’t going to be welcome by any schoolyards, and 2) The Internet was a dangerous place where deviant individuals could readily obtain illegal pictures and videos.
Technology has also yielded other forms of child abuse including young entertainers who are just looking to share their talents online. The rise of YouTube has given countless musicians, gamers and aspiring actor/comedians a public platform where they can share themselves for free while building their brand.
But with visitors and subscribers comes haters and pervs. Video channels have even been taken down in the past in the wake of vitriolic comments by trolls and rivals.
And YouTube rugrats aren’t the only victims, sometimes they are the villains. Whether it’s the vegan vlogger Freelee the Banana Girl skinny-shaming Instagram personalities or Patrick Bateman-style sociopaths like Onision incessantly answering the age-old question: “Where’s the beef?” Answer: It’s on Onision’s channel, YouTube drama has become one of the more damnably ostracizing factors of the modern technological experience.
It is one that was carefully considered by veteran comedian and podcaster Joe Rogan in an in-depth interview with citizen journalism vlogger Philip DeFranco.
The pair talk about all aspects of libel and social responsibility in addition to problems they have with their phones and other devices.
YouTube has even become a soapbox for violent criminals with one posting a video of a teen being beaten in Bridgeport, Illinois. Which brings us to the dark heart of the online community: VOYEURISM.
Anonymity Makes Us Evil
We’re not talking about the pervy hormonal pud-whackers sneaking a peep through a glory hole in Porky’s, we are talking about people who seek out SNUFF.
The snuff film, real footage of a person being murdered on camera, used to be the subject of utter skepticism. Any time a VHS tape circulated among collectors, they were debunked as being staged examples of Betamaxx-era guignol.
But the Internet is now a free market for uncensored torture porn. All it takes is your typing something like “chainsaw execution” into a search engine to arrive at truly grisly footage of unspeakably cruel and amoral acts.
In 2011, videos surfaced that are almost too terrible to even cover in words. In the footage, a small group of Russian teenagers march through a wooded area, bashing the brains out of homeless people with hammers. What makes this footage so disturbing is the time it takes them to kill each of their victims.
Unlike the depictions of violence we are accustomed to finding in mainstream entertainment, actual murder is revealed here to be a long and agonizing process. This realization makes the viewer feel every blow the victims receive.
This is but one of the ways technology may make us feel more alone. When faced with the evil inherent in our neighbors, an almost agoraphobic leaning towards solitude sets in.
Why do I want to know people if they are capable of such viciousness? If our own kids are capable of such acts then how can we trust anyone? This all results in a polarity between wanting to be left alone by the crazies and feeling alone as a result of your self-imposed confinement.
And while we’re on the subject of death, let’s revisit the prospective effect that planned obsolescence has on our psyches. A lot of people suffer from seasonal depression.
It’s something that can be triggered by a preexisting loneliness; you get the blues because you know you’re going to be the only one in your family that’s single and living alone on Christmas.
Or, maybe, you just hate your family and wish you could drown your sorrows in a bottle (or six) of Blue Moon Cinnamon Horchata rather than suffer through Uncle Jerry’s racist dinner table banter. But for some, it’s simply the changing of the seasons.
As autumn comes to a close and winter beckons, the leaves all die and everything gets cold as a morgue, and you are left to ponder the cycle of life on more miserable time.
Planned obsolescence can be thought of in a similar fashion—The devices which we rely on fail us, they die, and in their death, they remind us of our own obsolescence as mortal men and women.
So what do you do when you’re grappling with this kind of low-rent high-tech bummer? You turn to your friends…
YouTube is only one element of the modern technological experience. Social media platforms are increasingly prevalent across the globe. Sites like Facebook (and MySpace before it) have enabled the entire world to connect with one another.
By selecting a username and password, and entering some cursory information about yourself, you are given the ability to search for old friends, send friend requests to those who you would like to be friends with and join groups that consist of like-minded people.
So what’s the problem? For one thing, social media is setting people up for disappointment. Maybe you don’t have the greatest job. You’re living paycheck to paycheck, struggling to put some savings away.
Maybe you just don’t have too many friends in the physical world. Your job doesn’t afford you the luxury of status symbols like fancy clothes or cars.
Now you log on to your social media profile and check in on your “friends.” What’s going on in their lives? What you see makes you feel less than. Why?
When people post status updates on social media, they invariably share the best things that are going on in their lives.
Granted, you will occasionally come across a post where a friend is venting about their car breaking down or a relative dying, but on average, their posts will concern a party they went to, a new car they bought, a vacation they are taking, something positive that’s happening to them.
After all, active people rarely have the chance during a busy work day to post a picture of them spilling coffee on their tie or slamming their thumb in a car door in their rush to make it to work on time.
As a consequence of this never-ending barrage of fancy food pics and sunny beach shots, some of us can end up morbidly depressed.
That’s the irony about social media, that it can often make us feel lonelier than we would if we were to simply live in the real world, the real world that predates social media by quite some time.
Social Media Addiction: Have We Gone Too Far?
Our dependence upon Likes and comments when we post something to our own status bars can also have a detrimental effect on our sense of self and our mental well-being.
As mentioned earlier, when we send a message or make a statement on technology, it isn’t the same as in our physical lives. We have no promise of an immediate response.
The longer we’ve been on social media, the more we’ve become junkies to instant gratification.
This potentially deleterious effect that sites like Facebook have on our brains has been well-documented online. Experience pieces like this one reinforce the concept mentioned above. What we are dealing with is a sort of parasitic symbiosis we have with our devices.
Think about how naked you feel when you misplace your iPhone. Panic sets in and then you become fidgety, you don’t know what to do with your hands.
Someone says something like, “I wonder what ever happened to Rick Moranis,” and you desperately dig through the pockets you’ve already turned inside out five times in your search for your smart phone. Everything you want to know is on it and now you’re unable to access any of it.
The more closely we peer into the mirror, the clearer it becomes: Technology has made us sad slaves who are becoming more and more socially retarded.
One way of looking at it is this: When your only contact with other human beings has been limited to texting or Tweeting or leaving comments on a Facebook update, your understanding of social cues deteriorates.
This ensures that your next business lunch or dinner date will result in your misreading the facial expressions and body language of the person you are with. Which, naturally, results in loneliness and disappointment in kind.
The Death of the Reward System & The Loss of Excitement
It’s a brave new world, but it’s also a strange new world. It is hard to believe that a generation of kids are just now growing up who won’t remember what an actual telephone looked like.
They will never have to deal with dial-up or wait to make a call in public because some guy’s hogging the only phone booth in a one-mile radius. Technology and time have changed so many things, so much so that a certain piece of nostalgia and enjoyment may be lost forever.
I was talking to my significant other one day about The Wall. She rolled her eyes, assuming I was referring to the wall that US President Donald Trump insists he is going to build between the US and Mexico. I wasn’t.
What I was referring to was The Wall, a chain of corporate music stores that sold audio cassettes, CDs, DVD’s and Discman players (If you’re too young to know what a Discman was, put on your favorite song…then press pause and play over and over again as the song plays out).
The Wall was an early adopter of computer technology. In each of their stores, there was a small kiosk, sort of like a listening center except it consisted of an ATM-shaped platform on which rested a screen not much bigger than an iPad’s.
Customers could use this touch screen (rare for its time) to type in the name of any artist or album they had heard about. This music computer would then locate the album or artist in question, offer availability and pricing information, and suggest similar products.
Using this device to find rare and out of print albums was a joy for me as a kid, a joy that vanished in my teens when the store was shut down and replaced by a yoga studio.
Thinking about The Wall triggered other fond memories, memories of buying “cassingles” or audio cassette tapes with a hit song from one of your favorite artists and a B-side that you’d never heard before.
My conversation with my girlfriend about all this brought up other things as well such as our mutual affinity for the smell of cassette and CD inserts, that distinct inky scent that clung to the liner notes to any album.
And this, of course, brought back memories of discovering new artists not via radio stations or big music magazines but by the liner notes of our favorite bands.
“ ‘Member when Korn listed Limp Bizkit and Deadsy as bands to check out in the liner notes to their debut album? Ooo! Remember?”
BAE ‘membered all right, just like we both remember the sheer enthusiasm and anticipation of traveling all over the state to hunt down rare LPs in ma and pa record stores.
The search and discovery was often better than the music on the albums themselves and we were all in love with the jackets as much as the records inside their sleeves.
After we talked about all this, the two of us sat there and mourned the demise of a certain age of entertainment and technology. It was a lonely feeling because we knew we’d never experience it again.
This feeling was made that much sadder by the realization that no child growing up in 2017 will ever experience the joy that we had when we were kids. Why?
iTunes has changed the game on all of us suckers, it has rendered the hunt for good music moot. Now every hep cat and cool kiddie on the planet can have instant gratification.
Instead of digging through musty piles of yellowed vinyl sleeves in the basement of a record shop, they can just punch the artist’s name into their app and the song is pulled up at once.
This makes for an undeniable convenience, but it also means that kids will never be as excited about music as they could have been…back in the day when acquiring good music required becoming an amateur sleuth, roaming about town doing junior detective work to find an old Dr. Hook joint or an out of print Stooges jam.
Does Technology Make Us More Alone?
Huhm… well. I feel strongly optimistic about the future. And yet…
I can’t deny the fact that, with greater freedom provided by technology, I’ve experienced greater loneliness as well.
Where are we headed? Can technology save us from ourselves?
I sure hope so, else we may be headed towards a future when everyone is plugged in — but entirely tuned out.