In praise of virtual connections

Our interconnected world isn’t the cause of social disengagement, and might even fix it


A picture of a handwritten sign outside a cafe has ironically gone viral, emphasis on the word ironic since the sign states “No ‘wifi’… talk to each other. Call your mom. Pretend it’s 1993. Live.”

The fact that this message has gone viral shows there’s a deep longing for authentic connections among people. So many people see the shallowness and distractions in our online world—be it on social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest, or in being continually force fed the latest news and analysis, or in only being a text message or call away from billions of people—and decide they want something more “real.” A connection with people which is authentic.

But if you think social media and our ever-connected world have created this shallow distracted unreal life we’re living, you’re blaming the messenger instead of the message of who humans actually are.

That viral image says to return to 1993. To live.

Well, let’s do exactly that.

In 1993 there was essentially no email or internet—I know they existed back then in early formats, but for 99.9% of the world they might as well have been non-existent. Cell phones were expensive and ungainly with no texting ability. That last item was handled to a basic degree by pagers, but they mainly existed to guide you to an actual telephone for your conversation.

And perhaps most importantly, back in 1993 none of these tools to aid human communications and information flow were anywhere near as omnipresent as today.

So, were people actually communicating with each other in 1993? Was life more “real”?

Please. I was alive back then. I talked to people. I wrote letters. But overall, the conversations I had back in 1993 weren’t any less shallow than the ones I have today. Instead, there was (and is) plenty of “It sure is hot today!” and “Wow, did you see that game last night?” and “What can I say which will impress you / gain me something / make you want to have sex with me?”

And distractions? Please again. The world of 1993 was full of distractions. TV, radio, films, video games, books, sports, money, politics. OMG, the politics. If you think our online world has made politics more petty than ever, you obviously never heard of the 1990s.

And it doesn’t matter if you go back to 1993 or 1893 or 1093, you will find the same mix of inane chitchat and mindless distractions.

Need proof of this. Try this well-known and possibly apocryphal quote attributed to Socrates (by way of Plato) from more than two thousand years ago:

“Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.”

Sounds like a lot of complaining about inane conversations and distractions going on back then.

Sturgeon’s Law famously dictates that “ninety percent of everything is crap.” Well, that also applies to human communications and life. Ninety percent of all the communications you’ll have in your life are, in the long run, crap. Oh sure, they communicate information on what you need to do at work or school, or reaffirm and enforce your social standing among your peers and others. But are these conversations deep and penetrating, and something you’ll remember decades later? Unlikely.

The same goes with the distractions of life. Human history is one long litany of alcoholic excess, hanging with friends, partying, fighting, gambling, sex, and a thousand other pleasures and pains—anything to distract us from the mundane aspects of living and working and dying.

Don’t think all of that is an attempt to disengage from life? Then read this insightful essay by Rachel Baron Singer about how the parties F. Scott Fitzgerald attended in the 1920s were lamented for being full of people who were all detached from one another. Being in physical contact with people doesn’t automatically equal being engaged with them.

Now, this does not mean there aren’t extremely vital and insightful communications occurring in our lives. Obviously there are. And this doesn’t mean all of life is one big distraction. There are times when life is extremely real, when what we do and say is of life and death importance.

Moments like these are the conversations and times which matter—the conversations and times which mold us into who we truly are. But don’t pretend that before our online and ever-connected world appeared humanity was some paradigm of always insightful words and deeds. We merely believe people in the past were more purposeful and thoughtful in what they said and did because we’ve forgotten that 90% of what they said and did was crap.

The good news, though, is that our virtual, ever-connected world is actually aiding in the conversations and lives which matter.

You see, there is nothing more frustrating than a person not being able to share their true thoughts and insights. To not being able to find or achieve their true purpose and goals and dreams in life.

Yet that’s exactly what happened to billions of people before the internet and social media. Before the ability to access information anywhere and talk with nearly anyone in the world. Back then, the world was a far lonelier place if you wanted to achieve dreams which differed from those expected of you and you grew up in, say, a rural village or isolated hamlet, or were considered by society to be the wrong ethnicity or race or religion or sexuality or class or caste or gender.

If you were born in a small farming town, dreaming of becoming a scholar could be nearly impossible. Not only because you didn’t have access to information about such a career but because there was likely no one around to share and engage you in your dreams.

There’s a reason so many people moved to big cities in previous centuries to achieve their dreams, find new opportunities, and to live their lives unencumbered by the expectations placed upon them by their birthplaces. There’s a reason big cities were the centers of art and science and music and industry and philosophy for most of human history.

To my eyes, the root cause of social disengagement is not being able to connect with the people and information you desire to connect with. But now, thanks to our ever interconnected world, we no longer need to travel to the big city to find like-minded people and information.

As a result, the world around us is beginning to truly be a world of possibilities.

Of course, none of this means people won’t continue to embrace mindless chitchat and continual distractions. That’s what people have always done, and it’s what we’ll continue to do, no matter if these things take place in the real or virtual world.

So don’t pretend there was some ideal time in the past when humans were fully able to share deep thoughts and pursue their dreams and live a “real” life. The virtual connections in today’s world give far more people far more opportunity to do these things than ever existed in human history.

And that’s an idea which should go viral, instead of an inane plea to call your mom.