Awareness in the Age of Electronic Communication: Are we Alone Together?

Mindfullness Revised


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.  One wonders what the male in the picture above is feeling as he kisses his girlfriend while hearing the subtle tapping of her text message.  Does she feel anything with her eyes open and attention elsewhere?

The xkcd on-line comic “The Pace of Modern Life” posts several similar lamentations from periodicals over 100 years old.  They feared poorer quality communications and interactions from the newer technologies of that time: the telegraph, cheap and fast postal services, easily accessible reading materials, and quick locomotion.

In this blog post, I’ll analyze some approaches to the study of declining social engagement, decreased intimacy and other impacts of electronic communications on our relationships.  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.  Unfortunately, the “abstinence” approaches used to treat other addictions is probably not realistic for ubiquitous newer technologies.  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.  For many that involves developing awareness and empathy through conversations.

Alone Together

This need for “necessary conversations” to re-establish meaningful face-to-face communications is echoed in the conclusion of MIT researcher Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together.   In it, she summarizes 30 years of research into the effects of technology on human interaction.  She also presented her findings in an accessible 20 minute TED talk titled “Sherry Turkle:  Connected but Alone.”  This research indicates that while we are becoming increasingly connected through technology we are creating emotional voids that leave us feeling lonely everywhere, even when physically among friends and family.  Increased connections do not imply improved communications.  Frequently they lead to just the opposite.  As we spend far less time in face-to-face interactions, our relationships become less intimate and more fragile.

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.  Social capital refers to the total value of social networks that foster cooperation, reciprocity in giving, trust and information.  When social capital is present, one has a place to “belong” and can rely on others for support and encouragement.

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.

In Bowling Alone, Putnam mentioned that a national crisis might galvanize re-engagement in civic activities.  Shortly after it’s publication, the U.S. suffered the 9/11 attacks and subsequent crisis.  As predicted, impressionable youth of the time became markedly more engaged and remain so today.

We’ve seen some significant renewal and revitalization of many smaller U.S. cities over the past 15 years.  Some people are now living in cities that once “rolled up the streets” at 6PM and on weekends.  Restaurants and shops are coming back to downtown areas.  At least some communities are becoming “alive” again.  Suburban sprawl seems to be slowing markedly.

However, Putnam’s other public policy recommendations have not been as successful.  U.S. church attendance and spiritual engagement have continued a long decline 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 trying to measure and track 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 of social capital, it’s not clear that we can develop measures that would inform public policy debate or resonate with the public.  Still, reports of increasing isolation and other indications of declining social capital can create a powerful emotional argument that can lead to public policies that enhance our communities and encourage face-to-face interactions.

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.

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.

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 or even by voice.  Turkle’s research indicates that many youth strongly prefer texting to having a phone conversation.  She notes that they don’t want to lose control by devoting their full attention to a personal conversation, even if by telephone.   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, as Turkle’s research suggests, 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.

Moreover, empathy among college-age students has dropped by 40% according to a University of Michigan study.  Developing empathy requires deeper more emotional conversations that Turkle says aren’t occurring today.  These kinds of conversations are simultaneously deeply desired and yet avoided at all costs.

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.  Unfortunately, for the vast majority of people, there is no way to “quit” cold turkey as one might with drugs, alcohol or gambling.  Healthy uses of technology are often required for livelihoods.  Those who “unplug” from electronics may become even more isolated than they are with the devices.

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.  As Turkle suggests, such discussions might take place in religious or secular groups dedicated to improving the lives of the participants.  I recently presented it to a Sunday School class when it was my time to lead a discussion.  While we’re all in the over-50 age group, the discussion was received favorably.

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 and relationships.  While electronic communications can help connect with those outside our immediate presence, they often distract us and make us unaware.  We’re much more prone to “rejecting” those in our physical presence.  While academic studies and potential public policies might provide better environments to enhance personal contacts, I agree with Turkle that “necessary conversations” are the best way to make a real impact.

I’m hopeful but not optimistic that the social capital measures being developed will lead to public policies that enhance meaningful face-to-face conversations.  Gaining the full attention of someone for a conversation is deeply satisfying.  It can’t be replaced with connections or more numerous semi-attentive interactions.  Even though spirituality appears to be in decline, I believe that we must engage those around us in spiritual discussions about how we interact.  Setting aside times and making spaces for meaningful conversations uninterrupted by multitasking is critical for our emotional health.


Photo by Jeremy Hoel.  Updated photo and text: 14 Jun 2013.  Several additional sources including Turkle’s research added 24 Jun 2013.

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