#10 Has Connection Created Disconnection?

A few weeks ago, my wife and I enjoyed an early evening walk on the beach. The sun setting in the west cast a golden glow over the sand dunes and bounced off the ocean to the east. Sea oats rustled in the breeze.  Waves gently rolled to the shore and the gulls clacked above.  Glorious sights and pleasing sounds.  Nature at its best.

As we walked off the beach, I noticed a young lady walking towards us with her dog.  As we passed each other, I noticed her ears plugged with the ubiquitous white ear buds. Rather than looking at the wonders of the beach a few yards in front of her, she was feverously pounding out what appeared to be a text message.  Her thumbs moved with purpose.

Many of us have seen such scenes play out in various locales: airports, grocery stores, classrooms, staff meetings, meals with friends, and cars. Have we become that busy, that important, and that concerned that we just have to stay in touch all of the time? Or, are we shouting into the darkness—guilty of narcissistic pleasures? Do people really care about what we are doing every minute? Perhaps our world has changed so much that thumb dexterity and constant connection is the new reality. One common refrain is that we have become addicted to these devices.

In a blog post, Nicholas Carr dismisses “talk of ‘Internet addiction’ as rhetorical overkill.”  Maybe we are dependent, he says, but not addicted. Carr believes we must do an “honest examination of how deeply our media devices have been woven into our lives and how they are shaping those lives in far-reaching ways, for better and for worse.”  (http://www.roughtype.com/archives/2010/05/not_addiction_d.php).

Hmm…for better or worse….

Clay Shirky in his excellent new work Cognitive Surplus writes of the positive aggregate impact new technologies will have on our society. We are becoming producers of information rather than mere consumers.  He presents well-reasoned arguments for how we can use these technologies for our benefit. And don’t talk of wasting time with social media.  Shirky points out that Wikipedia was created with about 100 million aggregate hours of work.  How much television do Americans watch? Shirky puts the figure at 200 billion hours in one year.  The young lady we saw on our beach walk may be part of the new information producing generation—for better or worse.

Erik Qualman paints a compelling picture of the changing times. Lest you think I am a Luddite, know that his book Socialnomics was a game changer for me. (I recommend his video “Social Media Revolution” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sIFYPQjYhv8.)  I finished that book and began a positive (if not measured) experience with Facebook, Twitter, Tweet Deck, LinkedIn, and blogs.  And I have enjoyed this—even if I am still just scratching the surface.  With 500 million people venturing into Facebook (albeit at varying degrees of participation) it is obvious social media is NOT a fade.  It is here to stay.

But…and maybe this is the recovering Luddite in me…have we become so connected that we have become disconnected? I sit with colleagues who cannot have their cell phones out of site; they have to constantly check to see if they missed something.  If they are in a conversation and the phone rings or a text tone sounds, they dropped the face-to-face conversation to check the message.  Maybe I hang with a very important group of people who must be close at hand for immediate response about major issues. Or maybe not.

Have we become so connected that we have become disconnected?  Connected to the phone, to the text, to the latest app—but disconnected from the live human being in front of us.  Or is this the new way of doing things? Am I becoming my father’s generation—boohooing the loss of an early civility?  A golden era—that never really existed?

It is a new world—for better or worse.  While I do think it is much better—that recovering Luddite still appreciates talking eyeball to eyeball without the interference of a piece of machinery.

© Steve Piscitelli and Steve Piscitelli’s Blog, 2010.

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