What does it mean to be connected?
Before we all started carrying supercomputers in our pockets, we connected with one another the only way we knew how—in person. We planned activities around what we liked to do together, not what would make the best status update. We made photo albums (real ones) as a tribute to good times and we only shared important updates about our lives with the people who were actually a part of them. Being connected meant sharing ourselves, raw and unedited, with the people closest to us—without the need to document, retouch, upload, broadcast, or archive our relationships.
Being “connected” in today’s world is a much more complicated concept. When I started asking people what they think it means to be connected, most situated their answers in the context of the digital world: you’re Facebook friends (obviously), you’re connected on LinkedIn, you SnapChat each other, so on and so forth. In some cases, digital connections are even required to validate offline relationships—after all, you’re not really dating unless it’s “Facebook official.”
Our social networks allow us to manage more connections than we’re capable of maintaining offline, which has a huge upside in terms of networking, marketing, and the exchange of ideas on a global scale. But connecting through these networks comes at the cost of being “always on,” the symptoms of which we often dismiss as routine instead of questioning. We fall asleep with our smartphones. We check email before our feet touch the ground in the morning. We eat meals, work, exercise, and relax in front of our screens. And we go to bed with our devices, refusing to shut them down in case something comes up. We repeat this process every single day.
And so my question about what it means to be connected goes beyond just the methods we’re using to connect. What I want to know is this:
How is it possible that we’re connected to so many yet feel connected to so few?
Graphic designer Shimi Cohen put forth an answer to my question in a beautifully animated summary of MIT Professor Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. With nearly a million views and counting, Cohen’s video, “The Innovation of Loneliness,” claims that our tendency to rely on technology when we’re most vulnerable has made loneliness the “most common ailment of the modern world.”
Through Cohen’s animation, Turkle lays out a handful of claims that, as a society, we’re not quite ready to confront:
-We’re collecting “friends” without distinguishing between quality and quantity
-We’re sacrificing real conversation for byte-sized connections with character limits
-We’re faking experiences so we have something to share online
-We’re constantly creating the most enviable versions of ourselves, images we experience anxiety over maintaining
-We believe we will always be heard and we will never have to be alone
-We claim to have many friends but we’re actually very lonely
The video voices troubling concerns to a society that tries to solve the “problems” of boredom and solitude with technology. Think about the last time you forgot your phone at home. How did you feel? Anxious? Panicked? Like you couldn’t possibly get through your day without it?
Without our devices, we feel fidgety, like a piece of us is missing—almost as though we’ve lost a limb. And in a sense we have—without our phones, we’re without our all-encompassing tool for documenting our lives and filling in the holes of empty time. It’s much easier to be with our devices than with other people: interacting with others runs the risk of exposing our flaws, which technology cares nothing about. Ever notice a couple spending a nice dinner out with their devices instead of with one another? People bumping into each other on the street, buried in their screens? The classmate who spends an entire lecture Pinning? Or a friend or family member who isn’t really present during your conversation because she keeps checking her phone?
Chances are more than a few times come to mind in which you’ve silently willed someone to just put it away already. Actress and comedian Charlene deGuzman’s viral video “I Forgot My Phone,” which has racked up nearly thirty-five million views and counting, depicts some of these all-too-familiar scenes and asks us to look up from our screens long enough to take notice:
Part of the reason the video is troublesome is because it’s impossible to say for certain which scenes are hyperbolized. While the bowling scene is obviously an exaggeration, much of the rest of the video hits a little too close to home: a child on her phone instead of playing, an obnoxious stranger on his Bluetooth, a distant partner glued to the screen in bed. deGuzman’s video argues that the lull of our screens are detracting from our face-to-face friendships—and we’re too buried to even notice.
But deGuzman admits she’s just as guilty of burying herself in social tech as the rest of us. In the video’s initial posting on deGuzman’s blog, the actress reflected:
“[I]t’s not until now that I’ve realized that everyone — including me — is on their phones. A lot. Like, a fuck ton.”
The result of deGuzman’s own a-ha! moment, “I Forgot My Phone” leaves thirty-five million viewers asking themselves if they’re ready to admit we let the pendulum swing too far. And yet almost every time I’ve mentioned this video to someone, I’ve gotten the same response back—“Oh, don’t watch that! It’s really sad.”
Whether or not we’re prepared to take an honest look at our relationship with technology, both Cohen’s “Innovation of Loneliness” and deGuzman’s “I Forgot My Phone” drive the same point home: we can’t continue to let our online relationships interrupt our offline lives. Instead, we need to focus on finding balance between being connected online and truly connecting with others. We need to find small ways to remind ourselves—and each other—to put our devices down and be more present.
“There is a moment happening right in front of you, right this second,” deGuzman writes, “and you’re missing it.”
Amie Kjellstrom is Head of Marketing at Nextt, a private social platform for friends to connect online to plan their futures together offline.
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