Are our digital experiences eroding our real ones?

Photo source: Karam Al-Masri/AFP/Getty Images

Over these past cold wintery weeks in New York, my thoughts have drifted in the direction of our digital lives, mainly focusing on our experiences and interactions with our digital devices (tablets, smartphones, laptops) and how they are affecting our interpersonal relationships.

It all started last year, when I temporarily relocated to New York from London. A old friend from high school reached out to me when he was in the city. “Let’s do lunch,” he texted, to which I instantly agreed as it had been over three years since we had seen each other. Over the course of lunch, what caught my attention, was that I spent more time watching him interact with his phone than catching up and maintaining eye contact in an event he had initiated. I felt cut because as soon as the introductory questions of, “how are you” and “how is your family,” had passed between us, he was on his phone. Mind you this was not the first time I had observed this. This was not the first time it caught my attention. It’s even become a question posed to social etiquette experts.

When a group of us meet up - which has gotten rarer with each year since graduating from university - we all make the conscious effort to pay full attention to the conversation as well as taking an interest in what one of us is saying. Somehow we always end up spotting a group - of friends I’d hope - also catching up, but they are all deeply ingrained in their phones hardly talking to each other. We turn back to one another, promise each other that we will never do that, or at the very least keep it to a minimum, and return to our conversations.

I am not going to say that I have never done this - tapping away on my smartphone when I should be interacting with someone - however I am highly conscious of the fact of what I am doing and that I should be dedicating my attention to whomever I am with - so I limit my interactions in those situations. I find it troubling that we have all been on both ends of such situations. With mobile devices already so highly engrained in our daily lives they are beginning to encroach and erode real world interactions we are having between one another.

Technology has disrupted social norms #

Jonathan Crary mentions in his book, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep:

“Real-life activities that do not have an online correlate begin to atrophy, or to cease to be relevant. (…) Because of the infinity of content accessible 24/7, there will always be something online more informative, surprising, funny, diverting, impressive than anything in one’s immediate actual circumstances.”

Crary manages to perfectly capture what I feel is happening around us. I will add that as the experiences we have with apps improves, due to enhanced UX methodology and refined user insights, we will end up losing more of ourselves to the digital world.
Take what the Eircom Household Sentiment Survey found in Ireland. Media stacking – using more than one online gadget at the same time – is now the norm for three-quarters of those aged between 16 and 24.. So instead of making and effort to spend face-to-face time with friends, individuals are allocating more time to texting, posting comments, tweeting, liking, and reposting.yeah

Technology removes thinking effort and depth #

The internet is changing the way we hold onto, relate and associate information. Research on reading has found that the internet is changing the way we hold onto, relate and associate information. Using screens, e-readers, smartphones and tablets interferes with the intuitive navigation of a text and inhibits people from mapping the journey in their minds. It [The Web] has broken us out of the book (beginning-end / linear) paradigm and quietly ushered us into more of a forever growing spiders web paradigm, where endless nodes and paths expand outward touching on different topics. A perfect example of this is Wikipedia where you can start on a topic such as Sturgeon’s law and wind up reading about interstellar extinction four clicks, and four hours later. The positive side of such a content transformation is that everything is just a click away, there’s no need to go hunting for books in libraries or scouring through archives unless one thinks it’s really necessary. The negative is that all this close proximity allows us to be fleeting and skittish with our searches - TL;DR - it has removed the effort. Everything is pre-packaged and so close that we do not have to work for it, which in turn removes the exciting journey of finding what we are looking for - and in the process the hunger and feeling of achievement are lost as everything becomes menial. The quest for knowledge has been set to easy, which - in my opinion - is why many people do not play.

I feel that our devices have aided in making us less focused, due to the sheer amount of content readily available for us, all the while not enabling us to strive to improve our social skills or relationships. This fleeting, effortless and nonchalant way of interacting with information is spilling over into our interactions with each other which feel more and more pre-packaged, effortless and superficial.

Technology encourages us to be self-centred #

Our interactions with devices are heavily one sided - we take and take and we rarely have to give.

This encourages us to be selfish, painting a false image of the world around us as being a place where things are given to us with the least amount of effort. As Liz Gannes wrote in I Want it, and I Want It Now - It’s Time for Instant Gratification Part 1 of her Instant Gratification Special Series:

“[Instant gratification] (…) startups merge online expectations with offline reality, the Internet is becoming more than a glowing screen drawing us away from the real world. On the other hand, instant gratification tempts us to be profoundly lazy and perhaps unreasonably impatient.”

Each new app that adds to the instant gratification models seems to eliminate social contact in some way, shape or form. I will not argue with that it is more efficient but are some going to far? At what point will we realise that we are social creatures and that there comes a point where its the ‘going outside, randomly meeting strangers, becoming friends, sharing drinks, ideas, and embracing chance’ that makes life interesting and worth living. By using apps to eliminating these, what some call mundane tasks - grocery shopping, laundromat visiting, shopping - we are losing out possible random, fun and interesting connections. Sociologists have found that the rise of internet and mobile phones as one of the major trends that pulls people away from traditional social settings, neighbourhoods, voluntary associations, and public spaces that have been associated with large and diverse core networks.As a result we ‘know’ our favourite artist’s / celebrity’s / athlete’s life better than we know our neighbours.

How long before this seeps out of the digital world and into the real world? Relationships are a give and take - understanding the other persons needs, compromising, reading past just the words and into the more subtle cues in their body language and tone of voice - and I feel by eliminating this dynamic from the equation we run the risk of building a society that is quite lonely and awkward. I feel that this is to be seen with the next generations that are being raised on iPads, iPhones, and lightning fast internet.

Freedom to focus #

As a designer who currently lives and works in the heavily digitised world of New York, doing UX/UI design, I am becoming more aware that the combination of ease of access to information and the mushrooming of instant gratification models is hindering out ability to focus and fully appreciate individual items for what they are. - I have checked Facebook, my email and twitter around 50ish times in total while writing this post O_o - It should be no wonder many of us resort to  technology blocking services like Freedom, Self Control and LeechBlock to stop us from compulsively surfing, updating and tweeting when we are trying to focus.

Since we spend so much of our time in the digital world for work, inspiration, entertainment and even romance, it shouldn’t be a wonder that our behaviours changed. William Powers, in Hamlet’s BlackBerry thinks we can choose new priorities,

“Someday, it will be hard to remember why we were once so fired up about 3G connectivity and the wonders of mobile broadband. Seamless, lightning-fast connectedness will be a given everywhere on Earth, and today’s gadgets will be quaint museum pieces. At that point, all we’ll care about is what kind of life these devices have created for us. And if it isn’t a good life, we’ll wonder what we did wrong.”

Technology is not good or bad, I see it as an enabler of all things. It is up to us to move it in a positive or negative direction, just as we can either use it to watch cat videos all day long or learn how to code a mobile app. It also possesses the power to create depth. Depth by bringing memories to life through vivid stimulation of our senses - a photo from an amazing summer spent with friends can take you back momentarily, just as a voicemail from a loved one on the other side of the world can make you homesick. This enhanced depth offered by technology is only invoked when we are given time to process and tie the connections together. By drifting between the need to connect outward with the world and breaking away for introspection and space apart, we can become more whole.

All I ask for is greater awareness of the role of technology in our lives and more focus on what makes life wonderful, interesting…our real connections with each other. We can choose to stop romanticising the technology and start improving our real world communication, connections and experiences.


Other Interesting Reads:

Social Anxiety: Why You Didn’t Have A Life In 2014
by Emilie Friedlander

Sacred Economics
by Charles Eisenstein

A World Transfixed by Screens
by Alan Taylor

Why We Should Design Some Things to Be Difficult to Use
by Brian Millar

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains
by Nicholas Carr

How Digital Devices Change the Rules of Etiquette
by Randy Reiland

What is the etiquette of texting at the dinner table?
by Cindy Post Senning

Attached to Technology and Paying a Price
by Matt Richtel


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