We’re All Connected: Too bad more is not necessarily the same as better

Roughly two hundred years ago, working in a little Bavarian workshop, Samuel Soemmering created a crude device that, refined by others, would revolutionize communications for the emerging industrial age: the telegraph.

A hundred years thereafter, post-Victorians began to ponder its evolution — wireless telegraphy — in which individuals would receive telegraph messages, printed out on ticker tape, via personal antenna.

And what was their take on such innovation? Did they savor the prospect of a new age of enlightenment, empowered by ever-improving access to information and to each other?

Nope. Instead, they lamented what such a device would do to interpersonal intimacy — with such accuracy that it will boggle your 21st century mind. Consider the two images below: the first from 1906; the second from, oh let’s say, yesterday.

In 1906, “the lady is receiving an amatory message, and the gentleman some racing results” while, in the parlance of our current age, the contemporary image might more likely be described as “this guy’s girlfriend is text-flirting with someone while he’s glued to ESPN.” Either way, it’s an old-timey prophecy come true.

The unsettling way in which we’ve willingly become the punchline in Olde English satire has me thinking again about the nature of connection. As regular Shakers know, connection — and its more intense cousin, interdependence — are, to me, the cornerstone of resilience. In times of challenge or tragedy, all the contingency plans in the world — be they environmental, economic or social — offer little promise without committed, flexible networks of shared interest available to rise up, organize quickly, and implement.

In short, communities with strong social ties fare better in times of adversity.

So today, thanks in large part to the social web, we’re more connected than ever. But has the often superficial nature of those connections made us any stronger?

Social media, for the most part, is characterized by what sociologists call weak ties. You may have 500 Facebook friends, but the number that would actually help you move a couch is considerably smaller. And the number that would help you move a body is considerably smaller than that.

Thus, it’s entirely possible that our hyper-social online world is tricking us into believing we’re connected in more meaningful ways than we actually are. This matters because, for communities to truly thrive over time, two types of connection must also thrive: 1) person-to-person; and 2) people-to-place.

While person-to-person has suffered myriad blows over the past century for a variety of reasons, social media, despite its awkward adolescence, may ultimately prove part of the remedy — a needle towards stitching our social fabric back together. After all, not all online ties remain weak. Some transcend the virtual realm through ever-increasing Meetup type maneuvers that help turn virtual contacts into meaningful, real world friends.

But what about people-to-place? Are our best examples of placemaking, those great everyday places worthy of deep and lasting affection, sufficient to repel the lure of our devices? Can we turn off long enough to fully experience our surroundings? To become vital components rather than mere occupants? To see our built heritage and natural wonders as something more than convenient Instagram opportunities? Consider:

Is the way these people inhabit and reflect their environment…

           

…comparable to how we do it today?

           

Does this girl’s connection to the natural world…

           

…bear any resemblance to this girl’s?

I don’t know. But I do know this: relationships require maintenance. And work. We have remarkable tools at our disposal — light years beyond the magic of wireless telegraphy — but how we choose to wield those tools is a variable. Personally, I believe that if we start with the tool and work outward, our relationships — and with them, our prospects — will whither. Connections for the sake of connecting are worth little more than the effort it takes to click “Friend Request.”

But if we start with our passions and ambitions, our sorrows and joys, our fundamental need for one another, and reach out from there, using whatever tools we find to source and connect with others along the way then, just maybe, all this connecting will actually add up to something meaningful.

The jury’s still out.

Scott Doyon

If PlaceShakers is our soapbox, our Facebook page is where we step down, grab a drink and enjoy a little conversation. Looking for a heads-up on the latest community-building news and perspective from around the web? Click through and “Like” us and we’ll keep you in the loop.

Comments

  1. This is a fascinating subject. You and I have become friends entirely because of the connectivity offered by social media. I’ve formed other friendships around specific interests (Georgetown basketball, Van Morrision’s music, international bike racing) where it’s been far easier to find like-minded people online than through people I know through face-to-face connections. Like you and others in your firm, I offer commentary and opinion online that (who woulda thought?) is actually taken seriously in our field, made possible by the world of blogging that didn’t exist before about 2005.

    Indeed, your firm PlaceMakers is living proof that you don’t need face-to-face colleagues or a “place” to run a successful business, even one about making places. For all of us, it is now far easier than it used to be to do research, on everything from astrophysics to choosing a restaurant, because of the resources on the web, many of them interactive.

    The connectivity afforded by today’s media has overwhelmingly been a net positive in my life.

    And yet Rich Florida’s “creative class” premise is that creative thinkers require cities precisely because they enable F2F contact that they need. Some smart growth and urbanist advocates argue that F2F is essential to a healthy work environment. But I attended one such presentation in which half the participants were joined only by conference call! Telecommuting has never been more popular. We believe in F2F communication in theory but don’t actually conduct business that way anymore, because our experience leads us to believe that we can be more efficient and suffer less hassle by being virtual than by being real.

    And I would argue that it isn’t just social media at the root of the issue, but the demands of multi-tasking and the expectation that we are never “off the clock.” We do more things than ever, yet fewer of them mindfully. I don’t know the answers or what all this means for communities – I’m as confused as everyone else – but it’s a very complex subject.

    • PlaceMakers says:

      Provocative thoughts as always, Kaid. Thanks.

      I’d be the first to agree that my career (as I know it), and PlaceMakers’ value as a firm, would not be possible without the virtual realm, and agree that there is much reward to be found out there. I suppose it comes down to my closing point: is connection itself the goal or merely a means towards an end? The answer likely makes the difference between the hyper connected but isolated person and someone like you or me.

      What vexes me the most is not so much the personal reward angle but what currency do such connections hold in times of local challenge or tragedy. I’ve very much enjoyed becoming friends with you and would even, were I in the neighborhood, help you move a couch (though most likely not a body… no offense). But despite the connection and the rewards that flow from it, it’s tough to say how helpful it would be if tornados blew through Decatur (though I suppose I could appeal to you to walk over and rattle cages at FEMA…).

      So I guess it comes down to balance — not letting the satisfaction of our online relationships consume us to the point that our connections in and to our physical community whither from neglect. Those are the connections explored In “Bowling Alone,” and their struggles certainly predate the internet by many decades. If anything, they suffered from other distractions and changing priorities. So I suppose my real interest is whether social media-enabled connections will ultimately increase the waning of local relationships or whether they’ll in some way help restore them.

  2. The anxiety often times expressed now days over whether our culture is taking a fork in the road that contravenes our real social nature with our electronic gadgets suggests that our social nature is one dimensional, that talking is the full story. Who can argue that the technological revolution in communications has been mind-expanding in all the inconceivable ways that Kaid describes. But communication is only part of the sociality story. There is a revolution going in social neuroscience, primatology, anthropology, genetics, and sociology that is revealing aspects of our social nature that is more about empathy, the congregating impulse, biophilia, place-based eusociality, and how our brains process experience than simply about conveying information.

    Technology is not just helping us communicate, it is also allowing us to communicate with greater mobility. The old days of talking on the phone in the kitchen or getting the news of the world from the TV in the den is becoming a quaint artifact. Now people seek out places where other people are, not necessarily because they want to talk with them, but rather as social animals we like to congregate even while we engage with our gizmos. Sociologist William Whyte in his observations of people in public spaces in the 1960s and 70s noted that people show up not necessarily to have stimulating conversations with strangers, but rather just to be around other people. There are benefits to society in allowing the public to become familiar with itself through simple observation.

    I don’t think we are confronted with a Sophie’s choice between face-to-face life or devotion to our gadgets. The future lies with new technologies and renewed devotion to making satisfying public spaces.

    As Kaid said our technology is often overwhelming us with too much communication, but I trust that we will learn to reduce the noise. I attend meetings now days with everyone agreeing to keep follow up emails to a minimum. As a culture we are learning that more isn’t necessarily better.

  3. Love this conversation. For me it’s especially timely because I am on the brink of buying my first-ever smartphone. Not because I want to be connected, exactly – as an introvert, my worst nightmare is that people would be able to reach me 24/7 and expect me to interrupt whatever I’m doing to pay attention to them. (I have an old-fashioned cell phone now, but I hardly ever use it. I haven’t even memorized the number.)

    But I do want that smartphone. It’s become the primary tool for functioning in society – paying parking meters, getting directions, taking pictures and videos, making reservations, listening to music, whatever. It’s the apps, and if you don’t have them you might as well be from East Timor. (No offense intended to anyone who actually *is* from East Timor.) Speaking of which, smartphones also make international phone calls easier.

    I’m barely a phone guy at all. That said, a huge amount of my professional life is now conducted via Facebook, Twitter, and writing for online media. So I’m a gizmo guy in some ways but not in others.

    Pet peeve: someone looking at their device screen when I’m trying to talk to them.

    • I’m looking forward to augmented reality on smartphones. That’s where you can point your phone at features of the environment and get information. For once technology would enhance rather than dull our interest in our surroundings. I can do that now with an app called Distant Suns which allows me to point my iPhone at the night sky and learn about celestial bodies. Eventually the technology will engage us more with earth-bound things.
      Michael Tomasello, the co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig says that what defines humans as a species is not our vaunted reasoning ability, but our compulsion to point things out to each other. There is you, me, and the environment we point at and talk about. Smartphones could supercharge that part of us.

    • Kaid, I resisted smartphones for years as well… until the iPhone came out. One note… the great thing about all smartphone communication except a phone call is that it can be time-shifted to a convenient time to respond.

      As for the premise of this post in general, one thing is beyond dispute, IMO: Relationships that began F2F can be knit back together amazingly well with social media. I’ve connected with people I haven’t seen in years, but because the relationship was meaningful to begin with, our recent virtual communication is meaningful as well.

      Another thing… You and Lloyd Alter are two of many people that I met first online, long before meeting F2F. I now consider each of you to be a friend, and I believe you’ve said the same as well. I’m not sure anyone said that before meeting in person, FWIW… seems like it requires F2F to really consider someone a friend. Too bad Manti Te’o didn’t realize that!

  4. This blog: 697 words
    The comments: 1,346
    I love it. Pivotal topic. Thanks for jumping in.

  5. This is one of the subjects, where placemakers make a point – we, people, are interested in it, cause it is deeply changing our life now. Transhumanism has already suggested to enhance our brain by directly inserting hyperconnected devices in it. Why not? And what about ICT based “smart cities”, already existing and wiring buddies to the hyperspace, at the point that, especially in some Asian countries, it is becoming impossible to build even a local network of friends without passing through the internet before? This global trend, that in fact started with telegraph, and became more evident with television – is about dematerialization. What is at stake is human body, and hence – human places. Of course, Internet is a human space as well, cause it has been designed by humans for humans. But it is abstracted from body, flesh, locality – and many other “irrelevant” issues. Irrelevant to the market function that is behind the Internet (no matter if we can use it for other social or cultural purposes).

    Place is human, because it relies on the whole of human features, on concrete bodily humans, without interfacing/setting up/categorizing them. It’s a body-to-body (more than F2F) interaction, that includes many more possibilities – from love to war, from smelling, to talking, from doing, to breathing – and a full connection to all of our reality’s layers. Especially the unknown ones, the undesirable ones, the ones we avoid when we dont want a deep, real knowledge of the other. I like that Steve Price has quoted empathy and other relevant issues.

    Real, authentic human connection is challenged by dematerialization of space, through this technological form of channelling human connection. This latter, in fact, reduces connection to a kind of functional “essence”, that in reality lacks of what is fundamental. Writing down “hug” on a screen is not hugging. Of course we know, that it is rather a symbolic expression about our feeling: we are telling our interlocutor, that we wish to hug him or her. We are just offering a formal and abstract expression of our intention to do, what we’d do if we could by having the place for it. But predominance of interface over reality, makes this awareness to fade day by day; and it makes us more and more alone in the forest of signs – not to say about the real, bodily, and emotional need for hugging and be hugged.

    Is thus this dematerializing interface evil? Not at all, if we find a compensation in real, local, fleshy life. I’ve discussed how to quantify the optimal proportion between online and F2F (or “B2B”) connections in a city, in a recent paper to be published in India, a Country eager and ready to invest billions in “smarting up” its cities. But I wonder how our awareness must become brighter to face this challenge, apart from network and system theories. In the meanwhile, I really believe in place. Placemakers, do the right thing to humanize our world! Work, work, work! :-)

    P.S. Hug to everybody!

    • It’s not news to urbanists that things happen in face-to-face encounters that don’t happen over wires. What’s been lacking is rigorous scientific observation on the order of what Darwin brought to the subject. His last book was entitled The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. It was the first book in English that heavily relied on photographs to make its points. Virtually all the photographs are of faces expressing various emotions. He goes into depth how humans and other animals communicate grief, anxiety, joy, disgust, love, astonishment, shyness and numerous other emotions. The human face is one of the most remarkably communicative and protean phenomena in all of nature.

      E.O. Wilson’s latest book The Social Conquest of Nature posits that humans have a remarkable capacity to communicate and arrive at common intentions (although you wouldn’t know that looking at Congress). To arrive at shared intentions—which are key to creating constructed habitat—people need to perceive and direct the attention of others. The face plays a key role. Unlike many other animals, humans are constantly looking at other people’s eyes. Even as we walk down the street, our attention flits to the eyes of strangers. Try walking down the street looking no higher than at people’s knees and see how that feels.

      Michael Tomasello points out that humans have more visible sclera (the white of the eye) than other primates. Chimpanzee and gorilla eyes are dark globes. Being able to visibly detect where the iris and pupil are disposed allows humans to easily detect where people’s attention is directed. The built landscape, potentially rich in experience and pointing, should be conceived as an instrument for learning and sharing. Good planning, urban design, and architecture should enable, not obstruct that. In the absence of our ability to perceive, point, and share we get crappy urban form. We are entering an era when we can move beyond wistful sentiment in justifying the human needs for public social space. We are starting to amass some scientific arguments.

  6. peter annand says:

    I worry about our capacity to have a (sometimes heated) discussion about anything when some smart-arse always interrupts with conclusive proof via the i-phone…
    who sang the song,starred in the movie, wrote the screenplay….whats the point if there is no speculative thought ??

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