What is so wrong with digital socializing?
News of telepresence robots prompts some to argue that we are already going too far in terms of replacing personal face to face socializing with technological means such as Internet chat, facebook, instant messaging, virtual worlds and now telepresence robots. Anecdotes of neighbors who talk to each other over MSN instead of face to face are bandied about as examples of something going terribly wrong.
First off, I find it really interesting that this has become such a popular issue. I remember when my parents kept telling me to get off the computer and go out more, and my sister was saying how she could never work in the web development profession the way I do because she couldn’t stand being in front of a computer all day.
Fast forward less than a decade my father is practically addicted to the Internet and it’s become his primary means of socializing, and my sister plays FarmVille on facebook as soon as she can find time for it. I used to tell them things like “internet is the future” and that “it will be as basic as electricity soon enough” and this all panned out. To many facebook, email, and instant messaging services are the primary means of communication.
Why do I find all of this interesting? Because not so long ago this “problem” of socializing through technology instead of face to face applied only to geeks and so called “computer nerds” like me, yet now it appears to be a far broader phenomenon. It’s as if a lot of the people who would have previously criticized people like me now have the exact same “problem” as myself. If anything, it’s sweet irony.
You may have noted, however, that I keep putting the word “problem” in quotation marks indicating that I don’t necessarily think of it as a problem myself. There are certain disadvantages to digital communication and socializing, and relying on it too much does affect face to face social skills. However, a lot of these disadvantages relate perhaps more to the limitations of the technology than to the fact that you’re not communicating face to face. For example, you cannot express yourself as fully through textual communication as you could through a video chat or an avatar in a virtual world.
Digital communication, however, has certain inherent advantages as well, depending on the form. People seem to be more expressive, more genuinely themselves, and can in many forms (such as virtual worlds) express themselves even more by being something they wouldn’t dare to be in the real world, something that reflects something quite real about themselves which may have otherwise been suppressed. Other advantages are more obvious, such as the convenience, cost efficiency, more immediate availability etc.
Beyond all that, however, may be this crucial question. Why exactly is face to face communication so superior? Why is it in some way more “healthy” than digital communication? Is it just because this is the way it was before technology? That would be just a silly appeal to old, as if older means better. Is it because face to face communication develops social skills? Perhaps, but digital communication develops a different kind of social skills which is apparently today just as important. Who is to judge either as better?
I have a feeling that we may be approaching a point at which we may increasingly find the idea that in-the-flesh socializing and presence is somehow “the right thing” for its own sake to be a kind of prejudice, a superstition.
I would put such a superstition in the same category as a superstition that the “self” is something beyond the sum of our parts and therefore scientifically immeasurable and non-replicable, or a superstitious belief in the (false) dichotomy between nature and technology. What all of them have in common is a kind of appreciation of the unmodified, the status quo, the way things always were, and at its core the fear of change, the unknown or a different state of being and behaving.
To a lot of people the idea that we are merging with our technology, becoming one with technology, having technology define who we are and become an essential part of our lives, seems scary and ludicrous, at the same time as they’ve already been so accustomed to that same technology to such an extent that they’re not even aware of it anymore. This includes such things as modern housing, plumbing, electricity, telecommunications, and of course, the internet.
Ever since we started making tools we’ve been in the process of this merger, and where we are today is merely an ongoing culmination of that process. For all intents and purposes we already were modified through the use of technology, perhaps multiple times, and after each such paradigm shift we got accustomed to the new image of “human” that we begun considering the norm until the next shift. It’s just that today these shifts happen far more rapidly and with perhaps greater repercussions. Looking at the trajectory of human evolution and development, in hindsight, that hardly seems surprising.
I will leave it to your imagination where this process should lead next, and to your free will to which extent you will participate in it. My only hope was to pose some interesting questions towards the sentiments which see something oh so wrong in people interacting with each other online more so than face to face, and perhaps help expand your horizons with respect to digital socializing, and technology infused lifestyle in general. You might find that you can’t expand your horizons enough given the kind of future we might be heading towards, when the very nature of what you and your peers are will be questioned.