May 21, 2013 Leave a comment
There is concern in the popular press and among academics about how electronic communications technologies are changing how we interact with one another. Articles in Forbes and Time argue that these newer forms of interaction are hurting our ability to build off-line relationships critical to success in our personal and professional lives. Academic studies point to declining social capital and decreased empathy among youth as a potential cause for reduced trust in society. Trust is grease that allows the economy to flourish and relationships to thrive.
In this blog post, I’ll analyze some historical approaches to the study of declining social engagement and the impact of electronic communications. I’ll also discuss why empirical academic studies are unlikely to produce convincing evidence to change unhealthy communications behaviors – many that appear to be addictions. While some proposed public policies might help, I argue that we should confront unhealthy electronic human interactions in the ways we choose to maintain our spiritual health.
Declining Social Capital in the U.S. Since 1965
Nearly two decades ago, Robert Putnam, a Harvard professor, wrote a series of articles describing the declining levels of civic and interpersonal engagement in the United States from the mid-1960s through the mid-1990s. He summarized his research and potential public policy cures in the best-selling book “Bowling Alone.”
In the book, Putnam warned that “social capital” needed for thriving communities was declining at an alarming rate and made several public policy recommendations to reverse the trend. Ending suburban sprawl, increasing support for after-school activities, and public financing for community-based art are among the recommendations of “Better Together” a public policy report issued by the Saguaro Seminar, a Harvard-led group spawned from Putnam’s research. Because of these recommendations, many high schools and universities now require volunteer activities of their students.
However, the implementation of other recommendations has not been as successful. Putnam recommended strengthening spiritual faith communities but declines in U.S. church memberships and engagement have continued over the past decade. Fortunately, spiritual discussions can occur outside organized religions and it’s my contention that we need to spark one on the topic of electronic communications.
Social Capital as the Key to Successful Communities
Even in it’s earliest days, America has been envied for having high levels of social capital. By 1840, Alexis de Tocqueville had attributed much of the success of American democracy to the thriving social institutions and civic associations he describes in two classic volumes “Democracy in America.” While the United States has had periods where civic and social engagement have both grown and declined, the potential threat to democracy from sharply reduced levels of social capital is of great concern to policy makers. Several countries are now measuring and tracking social capital over time.
Difficulties Measuring and Tracking Social Capital
Many observers question whether it is possible to measure social capital as technologies change the way we communicate and associate. Claude Fisher, a sociologist at California-Berkeley claims that Putnam discounts newer forms of organizations that support social capital. Paul Haynes, in his Mitigating Apathy blog, summarizes much of the literature critical of the concept of social capital and associated measurement problems. While I believe a strong case has been made for the concept, I’ll agree that we’re unlikely to develop social capital measures that would inform public policy debate or resonate with the public.
Technology’s Impact on Social Capital, Empathy and Trust
Over the 30 years prior to the mid-‘90s television viewing was replacing time spent interacting with others. Relatively few used the Internet, cell phones and the array of electronic gadgets available in 2013 when Putnam was compiling his original research. He described ways that public policy could be used to increase interpersonal engagement in the book. However, he could not have envisioned the extent to which the newer personal electronic technologies of today could take us out of the moment while in the physical presence of others.
Computers, cell phones, texting, social media, and portable electronic gadgets have taken people’s attention away from television and other forms of entertainment over the past decade. Are they helping or hindering efforts to reconnect and regain social capital? This is a tough question and the answer depends heavily on how you measure social capital. How do connections made via newer technologies such as social media “friends” impact our individual social capital? As mentioned above, there is no consensus. These questions cannot be resolved through empirical studies – they are essentially spiritual in nature.
While cell phones appear to increase the time spent interacting with others, they also appear to be decreasing the time spent interacting face-to-face. Recent experiments show the mere presence of an unused cell phone will negatively impact the quality of communication, especially more meaningful personal interactions.
Internet-connected devices can be used to stay connected and maintain social capital. Unfortunately, it appears that these devices have decreased our ability to communicate face-to-face in a meaningful way. Increased texting and social media use means that we spend much less time in personal, face-to-face discussions. Without non-verbal cues and context, many electronic messages are misinterpreted. Public use of the devices takes us out of the moment making us much less likely to interact with people in our physical presence. Important discussions are deferred or never occur. Relationships become frayed and social capital is lost. Electronic devices can be addictive and may require interventions similar to those used for alcoholics and other addicts. Many of the most effective approaches to addiction are essentially spiritual in nature. Group talk therapy is common.
Spiritual Approaches to Improving Personal Interactions
Strengthening our interpersonal skills requires more than the environmental changes envisioned by Putnam. We’ll need to actively discuss the uses and abuses of technology and how we choose to interact in the physical presence of others. Below, I present an example of an image and some context that might lead to an insightful spiritual discussion and produce desirable changes in behaviors. Such discussions might take place in religious or secular groups dedicated to improving the lives of the participants.
Awareness in the Age of Electronic Communications: Context for a Spiritual Discussion
Rembrandt’s “Two Old Men Disputing” is overlaid with images of people taken out of the moment with electronic devices. The painting is generally thought to depict the Christian Apostles Peter and Paul discussing the second-class treatment of Gentile converts at Peter’s church in Antioch. Simon Schama describes the painting in Rembrandt’s Eyes:
The two figures are diagonally separated by one of Rembrandt’s invariably meaningful shafts of brilliant light illuminating Paul’s face, with its parted, speaking lips, and the index finger that points to the clinching passage in the Bible. Peter’s countergestures are more defensive: fingers wedged in the book, keeping his place in the chapters that might avail him a counterpoint. The sharp contrast between radiance and darkness functions…not merely as a formal but as a narrative device; the visual analogy of an argument.
The many nonverbal cues about this discussion stand in stark contrast to electronic interactions that must be interpreted without such context. Peter and Paul eventually settle their dispute. They agree that Gentiles should not be required to follow Mosaic law and will be treated as equals in the eyes of the church. Had this dispute not been resolved, Christianity might never have flourished.
Subtle yet powerful nonverbal cues were undoubtedly crucial to building the trust between Peter and Paul needed to unify their visions of the Church. Would that have been possible if they had used today’s electronic communications?
In the image next to the Rembrandt, we see a couple engaged in a public kiss while one is text messaging. It’s an extreme example of the lack of awareness among people using electronic communications in public. Meaningful interaction seems impossible. It’s not hard to believe the research that shows declining levels of empathy in society. Awareness is required to develop empathy.
Becoming aware of our surroundings will enhance the quality of our face-to-face interactions. While electronic communications can help connect with those outside our immediate presence, they distract us and often make us unaware. While academic studies and potential public policies might provide better environments to enhance personal contacts, I’ve argued that a spiritual approach is needed to make the most impact.
Photo by Jeremy Hoel. Updated photo and text: 14 Jun 2013.